Churches and the Spread of COVID-19

Donald Trump has threatened to “override” governors who have limited church gatherings. He can’t do that legally and he shouldn’t try. Furthermore, governors should resist the calls of some church leaders to remove restrictions. Going to church is not like shopping or even eating out. With this post, I plan to keep a running list of situations where churches have met together and spread the virus.

Some are widely known. In South Korea, much of the spread was due to a new religious movement where a single infected person spread the virus to many people in church. Several days ago, I wrote about the differences between church going and shopping and concluded that many things we do in church make it easy for the virus to spread.

Arkansas

The CDC reported this past week that an Arkansas church was involved in the spread of COVID-19 in March. Here is the CDC description:

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.

The Christian Post also reported on this church.

California

Cases of COVID-19 have been related to Mother’s Day services in two CA churches. In one church, at least nine cases are tied to the church service and in the other, two cases are known to relate to attendance at the church.

In April, a Russian language evangelical church near Sacramento was the center of an outbreak. Seventy cases of COVID-19 were traced back to the church. Small group gatherings may have contributed to the spread of the virus.

Georgia

Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle opened their church to in person services in April only to close again in early May after just two weeks of services due to reported infections among congregants. The infections occurred despite significant social distancing precautions and low attendance at the services.

In Cartersville, GA as many as 15 cases of COVID-19 were connected to an infected person who attended the Church at Liberty Square in early March. The church then moved to online services. Dr. Melissa Dillman told The Cancer Letter that most deaths from COVID-19 in Floyd County, GA came from that church service.

Illinois

A church near Chicago is associated with 10 confirmed cases and another 33 congregants with COVID-like symptoms after a church service in March. The stay at home orders had not been imposed at the time.

Kansas

From March 16 to March 22, a Church of God denomination conference was held in Kansas City, KS. As of a April 20 news report, there were 7 deaths and 51 COVID-19 cases associated with attendance at that conference.

Kentucky

In March, a Hopkins County revival meeting led to infections that spread throughout the state. At least 30 cases and three deaths have been linked to the meeting.

Minnesota

Two small Catholic churches, one in Maple Lake and the other in Annandale, share clergy who have tested positive for COVID-19. Despite following guidelines, volunteers and others have tested positive and are displaying symptoms of the virus. All three of the clergy who serve both churches are positive or symptomatic.

Navajo Nation

The Navajo reservation takes in parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. After a March service at Chilchinbeto Church of the Nazarene, 29 people came down with COVID-19.

North Carolina

Today, according to WLOS, Macon County Public Health reported seven members of Evangelical Ebenezer Church in Franklin, NC have tested positive for COVID-19. Health officials have identified this as a “cluster” of cases and identified the source as the church.

Texas

A Catholic church closed services after several members came down with COVID-19. The transmission is unclear but 5 members of an order associated with the church tested positive.

Virginia

A minister who defied mitigation efforts died from the virus. Gerald Glenn of Chesterfield VA vowed to continue preaching but succumbed to the virus back in April. Several of his family members also contracted the virus.

West Virginia

The first COVID-19 death in WV was a member of a Baptist church in Everettville. Due to lack of resources and tracing, it is unclear how many people became infected, but at least five did after attending a service of between 90 and 120 people back in March.

France

This was one of the earliest outbreaks related to a church service. About 2500 people took part in a Lenten service which led to 10 cases very quickly after the March service. From there, cases multiplied throughout France.

Germany

More than forty people tested positive (this report says 100 cases) after attending a Baptist church service in Frankfurt, Germany. According to news reports, the church adhered to social distancing guidelines.

South Korea

The CDC reports eight churches in South Korea where there are clusters of infections (in parentheses): Jusarang Church in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi (9),  Elim Church in Gumi City, Gyeongbuk (8). Dong-an Church-PC Cafe in Seoul (20), Manmin Central Church in Seoul (41), Onchun Church in Busan (39),Grace River Church in Seongnam (72), Bucheon Saeng MyeongSu Church in Gyeonggi (48), and Geochang Church in Gyeong-nam (10),

Summary

There are many reasons why a church service is a good environment for spreading the virus (see this post for a discussion). Despite social distancing, some church gatherings have been responsible for the spread of the virus. During the Spanish Flu pandemic churches closed down until it was safe to meet again. We should be patient and follow their example.

I urge readers to leave other cases of church spread in the comments and I will add more as I find them.

Last updated 5/27/20 at 2:45pm

Church is Different Than Shopping

Around the country, pastors and people want to go back to church. Some are suing to overcome prohibitions and some are trying to convince elected leaders to loosen restrictions. Just today, Ed Stetzer posted an article on RNS titled: If Costco can reopen safely, why not Illinois churches, Gov. Pritzker?

In his article, Stetzer proclaims: “If Costco can make it work, so can the churches.”

Maybe they can. However, I want to point out that church is different than shopping at Costco.

Stetzer calls on us to use science in our decision making which is what I want to do. My thoughts are based partly on an excellent blog post by UMass Dartmouth Biology professor Erin Bromage. Bromage teaches courses on immunology and infectious diseases and has a research program in the evolution of the immune system.

My ideas here are also based on my experience as a church attender and a shopper. Having done both for much of my life, I can safely say that full participation in church and going shopping are different activities.

Church activities spread the virus

First, let me pick some relevant material from Bromage’s article. An important principle developed by Bromage is this:

Remember the formula: Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time

To get to this principle, Bromage discusses the ways humans spread a virus. We spread it most efficiently by sneezing and coughing, but we also spread it by speaking and breathing. Sneezing and coughing expels hundreds of millions of viral particles, so it is easy enough to understand why sick people should stay home. They shouldn’t go to church or shop.

But let’s take speaking since that is done in church a lot but not as much in the grocery store, especially these days. Bromage estimates it takes about 5 minutes of face-to-face speaking to transmit enough virus to make an infection possible. Church meeting supporters might complain that we all will be wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart. Well, if you really will, then that will help. However, there is the variable of time in Bromage’s formula.

When people are shopping in Costco and many grocery stores, they are moving around in large open spaces. They go in, do their shopping, and leave. That is not how people do church. They go in, sing (more about that in a minute), talk, and sit and listen to a 30-50 minute sermon, stand around and talk some more and then leave, often in a smaller room. Sitting around for a couple of hours with a super spreader in the room isn’t like shopping in Costco.

Bromage describes several instances of how infections spread in restaurants, work places, sports venues, parties, and choir practice.

For instance, Bromage summarizes a case where a single carrier infected most of a choir in a Washington city even though the community choir members took certain precautions during their practice. The thing many Christians love to do in church that they don’t do in Costco is sing. Bromage describes how singing spreads the virus:

Singing, to a greater degree than talking, aerosolizes respiratory droplets extraordinarily well. Deep-breathing while singing facilitated those respiratory droplets getting deep into the lungs. Two and half hours of exposure ensured that people were exposed to enough virus over a long enough period of time for infection to take place. Over a period of 4 days, 45 of the 60 choir members developed symptoms, 2 died. The youngest infected was 31, but they averaged 67 years old.

Recall Bromage’s formula: infection equals exposure x time.

Bromage describes a restaurant scenario where an infected person at one table led to infections in people sitting at adjacent tables. The airflow in the room apparently carried low levels of virus to the people sitting at the adjacent table. Churches could work around this as we move into summer, but not if they don’t know how church is different than shopping.

Public Health v. Civil Rights

In a crisis, it is easy to get polarized and I have been pleasantly surprised at how well evangelicals have followed good practices in moving to online services. Of late, however, more voices have arisen suggesting that churches have a right to meet and that if people can gather in shops, they should be able to gather in church. As I point out, these are not similar activities.

If one looks at church activities and commercial activities through a civil rights lens only, then one could make a case that there shouldn’t be any discrimination. However, looking at these activities through a public health lens, there are important differences which place a burden on churches (or any group) to demonstrate how they will address the problems inherent in their activities.

If churches are going to meet, then they need to take this information into account. They need to spread people out, consider not singing for long sets (if at all), and having shorter sermons (finally!). Outdoor services might be an option in some locations. Online messages throughout the week should be available. Who said everything must be done on Sunday?

In any case, I hope it is clear that a public health lens isn’t designed to discriminate against religion. Church is different than shopping. Isn’t that a good thing?

 

New Barna survey reveals spiritual attitudes of gays

George Barna has made a career of surveying people regarding Christian related issues and attitudes. In this new survey, he aims to provide a spiritual profile of gays with comparisons to a comparable group of straights. Here is his summary and then some highlights:

George Barna, whose company conducted the research, pointed out that some popular stereotypes about the spiritual life of gays and lesbians are simply wrong.

“People who portray gay adults as godless, hedonistic, Christian bashers are not working with the facts,” declared the best-selling author of numerous books about faith and culture. “A substantial majority of gays cite their faith as a central facet of their life, consider themselves to be Christian, and claim to have some type of meaningful personal commitment to Jesus Christ active in their life today.

Specifically, the survey found:

Although most adults affirm the importance of faith in their life, regardless of their sexual orientation, straight adults (72%) were more likely than gay adults (60%) to describe their faith as “very important” in their life. And even though most Americans consider themselves to be Christian, there is a noticeable gap between heterosexuals who self-identify that way (85%) compared to homosexuals (70%). Another gap was then noted among those who say they are Christian: about six out of ten heterosexuals say they are absolutely committed to the Christian faith, compared to about four out of ten among homosexuals.

And even though a majority of adults have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in your life today,” such a relationship was more common among non-gays (75%) than among gay adults (58%). The research also revealed that straight adults were nearly twice as likely as gays to qualify as born again Christians (47% compared to 27%, respectively).

There were substantial differences in some core religious beliefs, too. Heterosexuals were twice as likely as homosexuals to strongly agree that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; two-thirds of heterosexuals believe the single, most important purpose in life is to love God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul, significantly higher than the half of all homosexuals who embrace the idea; and about half of straight adults and one-third of gay adults contend that their life has been greatly transformed by their faith.

One of the most basic beliefs has to do with one’s understanding of God. This proved to be one of the biggest differences noted in the study. While seven out of every ten heterosexuals (71%) have an orthodox, biblical perception of God, just 43% of homosexuals do. In fact, an equal percentage possesses a pantheistic view about deity – i.e., that “God” refers to any of a variety of perspectives, such as personally achieving a state of higher consciousness or maximized personal potential, or that there are multiple gods that exist, or even that everyone is god.

For other findings, read the whole report. Barna added that gays and straights who value religious affiliation interpret the Bible differently on key passages but adds:

“It is interesting to see that most homosexuals, who have some history within the Christian Church, have rejected orthodox biblical teachings and principles – but, in many cases, to nearly the same degree that the heterosexual Christian population has rejected those same teachings and principles. Although there are clearly some substantial differences in the religious beliefs and practices of the straight and gay populations, there may be less of a spiritual gap between straights and gays than many Americans would assume.”

Some light on Sarah Palin's church affiliation

Lots of rumors have been flying around about McCain’s VP pick, Sarah Palin and her family. In trying to understand her worldview, church affiliation has been of great interest. This seems understandable given the scrutiny given to Barack Obama’s pastor and the worldview espoused there.
Some are reporting that the family attends Charismatic or dominionist churches, but it appears that they attend a Bible church in Wasilla. Rob Schenck of the National Clergy Council said in a press release that the Palins told him the same thing at the Dayton, Ohio announcement of her VP selection. Peter Kirk at Gentle Wisdom gives a nice rundown of sources on this topic.
Here is some footage of Gov. Palin speaking at an Assembly of God church in Wasilla where she apparently attended as a child/teen. The Bible church she attends now would not be of similar views of charismatic gifts as would the Assembly church.
And then just released is this Newsweek feature on the Palin’s religious affilation…

Religion and the 2008 election: A conversation with Paul Kengor, Fred Barnes and Michael Medved

Currently, here at Grove City College, the Center for Vision and Values is hosting our annual conference. Titled, “Church and State: 2008 – A history of church-state relations and and a look at where the values voter will turn in 2008,” the schedule is filled with scholarly papers regarding church-state relations with special emphasis on how these issues impact politics and policy.

Earlier this evening, I attended a panel discussion that was billed as an interview of the Beltway Boys (Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke) with Center Director, Paul Kengor as host. Unfortunately, Mort Kondracke could not attend due to some health concerns. Filling in ably was conservative talk show host, Michael Medved, who earlier in the day broadcast live from the atrium of our academic building, not far from my office.

In fact, it was Medved who provided some of the more newsworthy comments of the evening. For instance, he disclosed the rumor that Barack Obama is looking at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a running mate. Mayor Bloomberg has switched his party affiliation to Independent from Republican (which was a switch from an earlier Democratic affiliation). This “fusion ticket” might be quite appealing to the middle.  Medved also predicted that Joe Lieberman, while a great friend of John McCain, would not take the Veep spot, even if offered.

Much of the conversation focused on how the religious vote might impact the election. Each candidate was examined in this regard. Specifically, Hillary Clinton is well known to occupy an Evangelical left position on most issues (which we have covered here in the past), McCain has Episcopal roots but has attended a Baptist church for quite awhile up to the present. Regarding social issues, all panelists agreed that McCain would chose conservative judges favorable to social and religious conservatives. This fact will help consolidate religious conservatives behind McCain. However, much conversation focused on Barack Obama’s political problems with his pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Both Barnes and Medved believe that this issue will dog Obama into the general election should he be the Democratic nominee. Listening to a cursory review of Wright’s actions and positions, I believe they are right. Obama has said his Christianity has been directly influenced by Rev. Wright. Obama is not unaware of his statements and activities. For instance, as Medved noted, Wright has lauded Louis Farrakhan and even traveled with him to meet with Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi when Gadhafi was engaged in terrorism. This is the mentor and church Obama chose to join just 4 years after the Libyan trip and then remained for 20 years, calling Rev. Wright his spiritual advisor.  Medved predicted an Obama candidacy could move the Jewish vote toward the Republicans for the first time in decades.

For political junkies, it was a intriguing evening provided by three astute social conservatives.