At least six local health departments in West Virginia have now reported coronavirus outbreaks related to churches.
As of Wednesday, the state reported 34 positive cases of COVID-19 at the Graystone Baptist Church in Greenbrier County, four positive cases at the First Baptist Church in Ohio County and four active cases at the Church of Christ in Bloomingrose, Boone County.
All three churches are closed, and Gov. Jim Justice said one person has been hospitalized. Earlier in June, Hampshire, Jefferson and Marshall county health departments notified the state of outbreaks associated with one church each. The state said those cases are no longer active.
“While church is surely the most sacred ground, it is the spot where we’re singing and where we’re projecting our voices, and we’re closer together,” Justice said in a virtual press briefing, “there’s more elderly there, and all of the things that make it just right for an outbreak, a potential problem.”
Justice urged people to wear masks while they worship. He said he would support requiring people to wear masks in theory, but waffled on whether he’d actually enforce such a rule. To the east, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has been requiring people to wear masks in indoor public spaces since late May.
“To be perfectly honest, I am a proponent,” he said, adding later, “I want good West Virginians to be all together. And I don’t want to start mandating things on West Virginians that could potentially divide us. It’s a tough call.”
In Ohio County, most churches reopened earlier in May with policies urging people to bring face masks, and with seating arrangements that encouraged social distancing, said county health officer Howard Gamble.
“We tell people, this is a virus,” Gamble said Wednesday. “The more ways you give the virus to spread, it will find it.”
In Greenbrier County, Graystone Baptist Church Pastor Youel Altizer told the Beckley Register-Herald members weren’t wearing face masks. Church officials declined several requests for an interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
Both Ohio and Greenbrier health departments urge people who attended those churches, or anyone who has had contact with infected churchgoers, to get tested.
Wheeling Hospital offers drive-thru testing to patients with symptoms or anyone who has been exposed to the virus.
On Friday, June 19, the West Virginia National Guard will help facilitate free coronavirus testing at the Exley Center on Hil-Dar, a housing community in Wheeling, and again on Saturday, June 20, at the North Wheeling Dream Center. Testing is free and no proof of symptoms or insurance is required, although the Guard does require proof of residency, like a driver’s license. Testing is from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
In Greenbrier County, the Guard wrapped up four days of testing on Monday. According to Justice, more than 800 people were tested, and at least eight came back positive. Most tests have been processed at this point.
Coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh said church outbreaks and cases associated with West Virginians who have traveled out of state account for an increase in positive cases. The Preston County Health Department is investigating a cluster of positive COVID-19 cases all linked to recent trips to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a popular tourist destination for West Virginians. Three people have tested positive. The department said in a news release that it expects more.
The state has recorded 2,376 positive cases of COVID-19 and 88 deaths. Justice said nearly a tenth of the population has been tested.
During the Wednesday press briefing, Justice said there are still 13 active coronavirus cases at four jails and two prisons in the state. He also said the state’s unemployment rate has dropped 3 percent from May to 12.9 percent, below the national average of 13.3 percent.
Emily Allen contributed to this report.