Emily Allen Published

Recent W.Va. Church Outbreaks Lead To More Than 70 New Coronavirus Cases

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

The most recent string of COVID-19 outbreaks linked to places of worship has led to roughly 75 West Virginians testing positive for the coronavirus over the last couple of weeks.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said it is tracking outbreaks related to seven churches in Kanawha, Boone, Logan, Raleigh, Grant, Taylor and Wood counties.

This is not the state’s first bout of church outbreaks. Earlier this summer the DHHR reported smaller outbreaks in Ohio, Marshall, Hampshire, Marion and Jefferson counties. In June, more than 40 worshippers at the Graystone Baptist Church in Ronceverte, Greenbrier County, tested positive for the coronavirus. One member died.

“We want to encourage everyone to still have online services if possible, but we are going to lend our support to the churches,” said Dr. Ayne Amjad with the Bureau for Public Health during a virtual press briefing Monday. “If you’re going to still meet, then we want to offer our support to them [places of worship], and encourage face shields.”

At least 48 people had tested positive for the coronavirus by Monday afternoon, all of whom were linked to the North Charleston Apostolic Church in Kanawha County.

Roughly half those people live in Kanawha County. The outbreak also includes five Putnam County residents, nine Cabell County residents, four Lincoln County residents and one Logan County resident.

In Boone and Taylor counties, the church outbreaks were linked to bible studies.

In Taylor County, public information officer Shawn Thorn said the four local cases were linked to a weekly bible study for adults. According to Thorn, the church volunteered to close for two weeks without requests from the county health department.

Julie Miller, the Boone County Health Department administrator, said four of the eight cases from her county’s church are Boone County residents who were involved in a three-day vacation bible school for children.

“We’re still trying to get everybody to wear masks everywhere, especially when they go to church,” Miller said.

Gov. Jim Justice signed an executive order July 6, requiring all West Virginians older than 9 years old to wear a face covering indoors when social distancing is not possible. 

The governor’s communications office confirmed to West Virginia Public Broadcasting via email the executive order applies to places of worship. Yet, two weeks after Justice’s order, it remains unclear how local and state health departments legally can enforce this requirement in churches. 

The governor’s communications office did not respond Monday afternoon to follow-up requests for clarification, regarding county health departments’ abilities to force churchgoers to wear masks.

Miller said participants did not comply with Justice’s mask mandate, which took effect Tuesday, July 7. It’s her understanding, she added, that local health departments like hers are unable to enforce the mandate with churches, due to separation of church and state.

In Kanawha County, the director of environmental health reported by way of his spokesperson that health officials would need a circuit court judge to agree a church is a health hazard, to legally enforce a closure.

In both Boone and Kanawha counties the churches responsible for the outbreaks agreed to close for at least two weeks, following requests from the local health departments.

In Wood County, where at least five residents have tested positive for the coronavirus, public information officer Carrier Brainard for the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department said the church responsible for the outbreak was compliant with the mandate. 

Brainard declined to share details regarding the church’s name and location. 

“It’s just important that people not panic, but that they make the right decisions and try to wear a mask,” Brainard said. “I know it’s difficult to sing with the mask on, but that’s one of the areas that they say is the worst for projecting, when you’re not wearing a mask and you’re singing.”

Health officials also recommend worshippers sit in every other pew. 

West Virginia Public Broadcasting was unable to reach health departments for Raleigh, Grant and Logan counties by the time of this article’s publication.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.