Over five days in the beginning of March, a series of events brought at least 94 people to an Arkansas church. On the sixth day, with the pastor, his wife and some of the congregants showing symptoms of COVID-19, the church closed.
In the time in between, at least 35 people were exposed to and infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, during church events, according to findings released by the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. An additional 26 people were infected through exposure to those who had been infected at the church. Four people died.
The findings, summarized in a May 19 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, followed a public health investigation that began after the church pastor and his wife tested positive for the virus. Including interviews with 92 of the 94 people who had attended events at the church, the investigation traced the probable origins of the outbreak to March 6, when two people with symptoms of the novel coronavirus came to the church. Gatherings at the church over the five days that followed included a children’s contest that brought nearly every child in direct contact with nearly every adult in attendance over the course of two days, a buffet lunch, a bible study and a service with hymn singing.
The 35 infections that followed among church visitors, including two from outside of the state, represent 38% of those who attended events at the church during that week. Seven people were hospitalized, and three died. Of the 26 subsequently infected community members, one was hospitalized and died. With limited testing at the time, including among people without symptoms, infections among church-goers may have been missed, according to the report. The number of community infections likely is undercounted, the authors of the report write.
The findings underscore the risks of COVID-19 transmission in church settings, which along with long-term care facilities, hospitals and family gatherings have been linked to some of the highest rates of transmission, the authors note.