A multi-day annual gathering at a huge church based in Charlotte, North Carolina has emerged as a likely widespread event, fueling the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the county and apparently infecting at least 82 people, three of whom are deceased, according to local officials.
The clash between in-person worship and pandemic guidelines has sparked widespread outrage, tension and events in recent weeks across the country – from California to Maine. Adding insult to injury during the outbreak in Charlotte, officials and health care providers said the church refused to let anyone organize on-site testing.
“We offered our services and offered our services without a response,” said Sylvia Grier, manager of management services at the nonprofit Genesis Project, a local mental and behavioral health agency that offers free coronavirus testing. to residents at The Daily Beast.
The United House of Prayer for All is a lavish, jewel-colored structure guarded by statues of lions on either side of the entrance, where blue and red crosses hang high. The church was founded a century ago and is known to this day for its marching bands and mass baptisms, such as Charlotte’s Observer reported.
The Mecklenburg County Department of Public Health said in a statement on Wednesday that a series of events at the church, October 4-11, drew visitors from Georgia, New Jersey, New York and Caroline from the south. This decision did not age well.
“You probably heard us say two weeks ago that things were going really well for us, but we told you it was fragile,” said Raynard Washington, deputy director of health for Mecklenburg County, at a meeting of county commissioners Tuesday night, according to WCNC-LA TV. Washington said the county’s daily cases nearly doubled last week. “We saw this happen very quickly, very quickly,” he added.
County spokeswoman Rebecca Carter declined to answer specific questions from the Daily Beast on Thursday, instead pointing to a statement from the department. Carter previously said officials weren’t sure exactly how many people attended the services – both indoors and out – and were unable to confirm reports that smaller events included up to 50 people while other larger church events reached up to 1,000 people throughout the week, such as the Observer reported.
According to Charlotte Culture Guide, the church has a capacity of 2,500 worshipers in its main shrine, a small chapel with a capacity of 700, a fully equipped commercial kitchen and dining room that can accommodate up to 300 clients, as well as an additional private dining room that can accommodate 100 guests.
Calls to the United House of Prayer for All for comment were not returned Thursday.
North Carolina is currently in Phase 3 of its plan to reopen until at least November 13, which recommends – but does not mandate – that in-person worship be limited to 100 people per venue or 30% of capacity, whichever is less. State directives also require that establishments “guarantee sufficient social distance with at least six feet of separation between groups other than those in their household”.
But it was not just any religious service.
“In this gathering, people are coming from all over the country, maybe the whole world, to come to this festive affair,” County Commissioner Vilma Leake said at a press conference Wednesday.
A woman, Catherine Williams, told WBTV on Thursday evening that her mother-in-law passed away days after attending the services – although she was unable to take a COVID-19 test before she passed away. She also told the local television station that her stepmother’s sister had been hospitalized and tested positive for the virus. Both women were at events held at the United House of Prayer for All, but Williams said she couldn’t be certain this was where they were infected.
“They wore masks, but it was just the fact that people from different states were coming here,” Williams said. “My thing is, with COVID, they should have just canceled it.”
As of Thursday, Mecklenburg County in Charlotte had 32,264 cumulative confirmed cases and 376 deaths, compared to a total of 250,592 confirmed cases in North Carolina, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
Eight of the church-affiliated cases and at least one of the deaths involved residents of a retirement and long-term care facility in Charlotte, where all residents have now been tested, Washington said at the press conference Wednesday. Authorities have so far attempted to contact at least 131 close contacts of confirmed cases, in addition to health services in other states. Of all the confirmed cases, five patients have been hospitalized, Washington said.
Washington explained that the county had also offered to provide testing to the church itself, but leaders had refused to host a testing site on their property.
“They weren’t interested,” Washington said.
On the other hand, Project Genesis was set to give more than 300 tests on Sunday, but often saw only one or two dozen takers a day at its sites around town, Grier said. “We did testing all over this area, and we tried to get the word out to the ministers, but of course they were very difficult to reach, so we just reached out to a few members to let them know that we would open up to. do some tests for Sunday. “
They never heard back, Grier said.
“We will be worried about cases every day,” she continued. “As we travel around the city, you can see that people still see it casually and don’t wear their masks or distance themselves.”
“Usually, [Charlotte residents are] don’t take it seriously, ”Grier told The Daily Beast. “This is what we see overall.”
Despite the church’s apparent lack of interest, the health department will continue to provide free drive-thru tests this week near church property in a bid to curb the local outbreak and identify more quickly subsequent infections, he said in a statement.
Washington told reporters the department had asked the church to stop organizing events altogether, but had not received any response from leaders on whether they would heed the request. Despite this, Washington said it was in daily contact with the church’s senior pastor.
The state’s health department released new data on North Carolina cases during the pandemic on Wednesday, showing which facilities have been linked to the highest number of infections. In recent weeks, according to the report, groups of social gatherings including “parties, family reunions, weddings, funerals” have increased, as is the case in other parts of the country.
But data also showed that the number of cases associated with clusters at religious gatherings increased in September, while cases associated with colleges and universities peaked in late August. Earlier facilities that produced bunches, such as meat and poultry processing plants, have been decreasing their number of cases steadily since early May.
The report found that there had been 168 clusters at colleges and universities in North Carolina, resulting in a total of 1,902 infections and zero deaths. Religious rallies, meanwhile, have resulted in 76 clusters, 1,040 cases and 13 deaths in the state.
But, according to health experts, pandemic fatigue – or the taste for individual freedom – is no excuse to contribute to a new nationwide wave of coronavirus.
“Trying to prevent the deaths of members of our community shouldn’t be a political issue,” said Viviana Martínez-Bianchi, associate professor in the department of family medicine and community health at Duke University. “We are all tired. The community is tired, the health workers are tired, we are all tired of wearing a mask. But I’m not ready to say, ‘let’s give this up and allow more people to die.’ “
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