Gov. Jim Justice said more than two dozen cases of coronavirus have been identified among the congregants of a single Greenbrier County church.
That is one of several outbreaks at West Virginia churches described by Justice and state health officials.
“This could be your community tomorrow. This could be your church tomorrow. This could be your family tomorrow,” Justice said, urging state residents to use personal caution.
“It can happen anywhere. At any time. This disease is right here with us.”
The church, Graystone Baptist in Lewisburg, posted on social media that it had followed precautions: “We adhered to the state and local governments concerning the reconvening of our church.”
Partway through today, Justice said, 28 people at Graystone Baptist had tested positive for covid-19.
Graystone Baptist has closed for 14 days environmental cleaning with support from the National Guard, and the local health department is providing guidance on prevention measures. There were two additional coronavirus testing events added for Greenbrier County today and Sunday.
Graystone Baptist is one of several churches in West Virginia identified by state officials with a coronavirus outbreak in recent days.
Although the Department of Health and Human Resources did not want to single out the churches by name, a news release from the agency said there were cases in Boone, Hampshire, Jefferson, and Marshall counties.
State Health Officer Cathy Slemp described 53 individuals identified with coronaviruses who attended services at the churches., although she noted those people have had other contacts in their communities too.
Slemp said West Virginia’s most recent outbreaks have been community-based, rather than at enclosed communities such as nursing homes or prisons.
“We keep getting this question of is it safe to do this or safe to do that? It really isn’t about safe or not safe. It’s about managing risk,” Slemp said.
She warned people to be careful of out-of-state travel but said prevention measures, on the whole, work.
“If you do have to go out, wear a mask,” Slemp said. It’s about using our heads, having a little bit of discipline.”
Coronavirus response coordinator Clay Marsh said churches, like other gathering places, carry risk.
“As we think about gathering places, whether they’re churches or stores or restaurants, we know the more we’re inside the more chance of transferring the virus,” Marsh said.
Churches initially were listed among essential services when Governor Justice issued a broad stay-at-home order, but they were advised to halt in-person services and, instead, provide services through broadcast or internet.
When the stay-at-home order began to be eased, the Justice administration issued guidelines for places of worship with recommendations for additional services to be added, restricting seating to every other row, ensuring all those who attend wear a mask and encouraging all worshippers above age 65 to stay home and watch services online.
The governor urged people to remain vigilant.
“What happens if we lose a couple people, maybe more, in a community and we could have done more?” he said.
“And yet if we lose somebody because of an inconvenience of wearing a mask or whatever it may be — if we lose somebody? It’s a big price to pay.”