Wednesday, May 20, 2020

As Churches Re-Open Across US, CDC Issues Report on Arkansas Church in Which a COVID Cluster Spread into Wider Community

In the current pandemic, churches and church gatherings have proven repeatedly to be a perfect petri dish for spread of coronavirus infection. Churches within which infection begins to circulate then bring the infection into the wider community. Yet many Americans continue clamoring for churches to be re-opened even as medical officials urge caution, and. as they clamor, they want to weaponize the pandemic with claims that shutting churches down is an attack on religion.

Yesterday, the CDC issued a study that appears to be about the church in Greers Ferry, Arkansas, that proved to be the source of a coronavirus cluster early in the pandemic in Arkansas. I blogged about this story in March and April (and here, here, and here). The CDC report does not name the church on which it's reporting, but what the CDC study reports pretty clearly matches much that has been reported about this particular church and what happened when coronavirus infection within the church spread into the larger community in the rural county in Arkansas in which this church is located. Here's some commentary on this and related stories from the past several days:

CDC (Allison James, Lesli Eagle, Cassandra Phillips, D. Stephen Hedges, Cathie Bodenhamer, Robin Brown, J. Gary Wheeler, and Hannah Kirking), "High COVID-19 Attack Rate Among Attendees at Events at a Church — Arkansas, March 2020":

Among 92 attendees at a rural Arkansas church during March 6–11, 35 (38%) developed laboratory-confirmed COVID-19, and three persons died. Highest attack rates were in persons aged 19–64 years (59%) and ≥65 years (50%). An additional 26 cases linked to the church occurred in the community, including one death.

35 of the 92 people (38%) who attended services at a rural Arkansas church March 6–11 tested positive for the coronavirus, ultimately killing three, according to a case study released Tuesday by the CDC
Why it matters: Places of worship continue to be a problem for controlling the widespread transmission of the coronavirus, especially as some churches and local government officials push to loosen restrictions on religious gatherings. 
● Contact tracing found that an additional 26 people were infected after interacting with attendees of the church, and one person from that group died. 
● Most of the cases were aged 19 and older. 
● Both the pastor and his wife developed coronavirus symptoms and closed the church indefinitely on March 12. 
The big picture: Outside of public service announcements on hygiene and social distancing, the CDC has largely left guidance on whether to reopen places of worship to the states. 
● In Arkansas, the state banned indoor gatherings of more than 10 people, but exempted religious services. 
● Almost 200 people are being quarantined after a possible cluster in California was identified after people attended a church service on Mother's Day, the Los Angeles Times reports
Kentucky and Kansas both had federal court rulings against their governors' orders to temporarily ban mass gatherings at religious services. 
The bottom line: Even with care and caution, in-person congregations can become hotbeds for coronavirus outbreaks as some states begin to reopen public spaces and businesses.

Dozens of cases. Three deaths. And a pastor who seemed to follow the relevant guidance and reported symptoms right away. ...
"People can go to church and become infected and then spread it into their larger communities, and with an infection like SARS-CoV-2, this could really promote a major secondary or tertiary wave of infection in the larger community," Redlener [Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University] said. "It's not just limited to the people who attend these services."
"This is an unresolved issue," he added. "There's a threat to the larger community."

Two people infected with COVID-19 spread the virus to more than 30 people during church gatherings in Arkansas in early March, before the first case was ever diagnosed in that state, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published Tuesday. 
The cases illustrate how rapidly the virus can spread to others involved in faith-based organizations, and may have implications for places of worship as churches nationwide figure out how to reopen safely.

A Mother's Day church service held in violation of California’s coronavirus public health orders resulted in the exposure of over 180 people to the virus. 
The Butte County Public Health Department first announced Friday that it had begun a contact tracing operation to respond to a religious service "where a person with lab-confirmed COVID-19 attended." On Sunday, pastor Mike Jacobsen of Palermo Bible Family Church (PBFC) confirmed to the Los Angeles Times that PFBC held the service in question. ...
"Some have said, 'That wasn't using good common sense,' [Pastor] Jacobsen said, referring to his decision to hold a Mother's Day service. ...
"I want to be like Peter," the pastor said later in the service. "I want to leave what makes sense — the comfortable boat that everybody else is in."

A Northern California pastor who livestreamed a small Mother's Day service that featured singing—despite a public health warning that singing could increase the spread of the virus via airborne droplets—has tested positive for the virus along with at least two others. Officials are asking any people who had contact with church members or who have recently visited the church to come forward for testing.

A person who later learned they were positive for Covid-19 attended a California religious service on Mother's Day, exposing 180 other people to the novel coronavirus, according to local health officials. 
The incident highlights the ongoing tug-of-war between some religious organizations and public officials as they work to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Some congregations around the country have continued to meet, despite stay-at-home orders -- though some states had exempted religious gatherings
"At this time, organizations that hold in-person services or gatherings are putting the health and safety of their congregations, the general public and our local ability to open up at great risk," said Butte County Public Health Director Danette York, who implored everyone to do their part to adhere to mitigation efforts. 

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston says a priest who worked at Holy Ghost parish has died after five members of his religious order have tested positive for coronavirus. 
Donnell Kirchner, 79, died last week after he was diagnosed with pneumonia, officials said on Monday. 
In a statement, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston said Kirchner was recently treated at a local urgent care clinic who referred him to a hospital emergency room. 
After he was diagnosed with pneumonia, the archdiocese said he was not admitted to the hospital and was sent home with medication.

Churches in states at the forefront of reopening efforts are closing their doors for a second time. 
Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle in Ringgold, Ga., less than 20 miles away from Chattanooga, Tenn., and Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Houston have indefinitely suspended services after members and leaders tested positive for the coronavirus shortly after reopening. 
The news of the canceled services comes as a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that large gatherings pose risk for coronavirus transmission and called on faith-based organizations to work with local health officials about implementing guidelines for modified activities. 
The report looked at a rural Arkansas church, where a pastor and his wife attended church events in early March. At least 35 of 92 attendees tested positive for the coronavirus, and three people died. An additional 26 cases and a death occurred in the community from contact with the church cases, the report confirmed. 
The report underscores the difficulty believers and faith leaders face as the need for the comfort of in-person worship grows stronger and lawmakers yield to a public growing tired of physical distancing measures.

The following is from a newsletter PRRI sent to subscribers yesterday; since the newsletter came to me and others by email, I don't have a link to an online source for it. It states, 

The majority of Americans (77%) express opposition to a religious exemption for local stay-at-home orders. Four in ten (40%) strongly oppose these policies, which have appeared across the United States. In recent days, some states have relaxed their stay-at-home orders allowing for religious institutions to welcome guests. In Delaware, gatherings must be capped at 30% of a building’s fire code capacity. At one church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, reservations are now required to attend mass, with the number of congregants limited. "It looks like no church you’ve ever been," said Father John Mosimann tells DCist. "We divided the gym with a little bit of yellow caution tape into little cells, as I’m calling them — not in a prison sense, but in the monastic sense — that this is your little home."

Mass gatherings become more significant if such events occur frequently, with at least some of the same individuals returning repeatedly to the same place. This is often the case for scheduled football matches or religious services, both of which occur weekly – an interval conveniently similar to the time it takes a person infected with coronavirus to become infectious to others.

Two days ago, the Catholic bishops of Québec issued a pastoral statement entitled “Nos églises n’ouvriront pas tout de suite. Pourquoi?” ["Our churches aren't going to open right away — why?"]. This pastoral statement opens by noting that there's increasing pressure on church officials to reopen churches and resume religious gatherings. Catholic religious officials in Québec indicated that they do not intend to give in to that pressure, for the following primary reason:

Depuis le début de la pandémie, les évêques ont fondamentalement agi par charité pastorale en suspendant toutes les célébrations liturgiques communautaires et en fermant les lieux de culte dès que l’état d’urgence sanitaire a été déclaré. Le devoir de charité chrétienne, qui est la première obligation de toute personne baptisée, était et continue d’être celui de prendre soin les uns des autres en évitant la propagation du coronavirus. C’est la meilleure façon présentement de mettre en pratique le grand commandement de l’Amour. Par charité pastorale, nous collaborons avec les autorités de la santé publique afin de réduire les risques mortels de cette pandémie. Nous ne devons pas oublier que de nombreux participants à nos rassemblements font partie des personnes les plus vulnérables.

My rough translation of the preceding statement:

From the start of the pandemic, bishops have at a fundamental level chosen the path of pastoral charity in stopping all communal liturgical celebrations and in closing places of worship after a public health crisis had been declared. The duty of Christian charity, which is the primary obligation of every baptized Christian, was and continues to be to take care of one another as we seek to avoid spreading coronavirus. This is the best way at present to put into practice the great commandment to love one another. Through pastoral charity, we collaborate with public health officials to help reduce the lethal risks of this pandemic. We must not forget that many of those participating in our church gatherings interact with those who are most vulnerable to infection.

The pastoral document goes on to point out that the notion that Christ is present to Catholics only through liturgy and sacrament is not correct: as the pastoral statement points out, Christ is present to all belivers whenever they read and meditate on the scriptures, when they pray, when they assist each other at times of need. The presence of Christ to believers in all of these activities is as real as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

This pastoral document was preceded by a personal statement that the archbishop of the Québec diocese of Gattineau, Paul-André Durocher, made on Facebook. He stated,

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I've isolated myself, I've followed government instructions, I've been doubly attentive to my hygiene. Why? It's not so much because I'm afraid of getting sick. It's mainly because of the older priests I live with. There's no way I'd want them to get sick because of me. What worries me more is that I could be carrying this virus without having any its symptoms. So, even though I feel perfectly healthy, I choose to limit my outings, to avoid groups, to work from my room and to spend many hours alone. Such is the price of love. 
I would not want the reopening of our churches to give this virus a chance to spread and infect more people than it already has, especially our older and more vulnerable parishioners. The most recent statistics tell us that the number of mortalities in Quebec increased by 30% in April compared to last year. That’s huge. We can't continue with this mortality rate. And so, I wait.

This is all sound theological sense, good sense. It's quite an indictment of what many Catholics have made of their church at this point in time, however, that many Catholics don't want this sound theology and good sense. They prefer to be twisted and turned by right-wing ideologues who want to weaponize their faith for the benefit of men like Donald Trump.

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