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Health Team

Data shows clusters of COVID cases linked to church services

Posted October 21, 2020 1:35 p.m. EDT
Updated October 21, 2020 11:28 p.m. EDT

— In Robeson County, where the rate of coronavirus cases and deaths per 100,000 is among the highest in the state, health leaders are asking for help from the religious community to get the spread in check.

Melissa Packer, assistant health director for the county, said cases of coronavirus are up 120% from three weeks ago.

Dr. Robin Peace, president of medical staff at Southeastern Health, said she is aware of dozens of cases of the coronavirus connected to church services. Sources said at least four churches have seen clusters of cases – defined by the state as five or more linked cases.

"I'm seeing patients on a regular basis that they got it going to church and worshiping and not wearing a mask," Peace said.

WRAL News has learned East Lumberton Baptist Church​ has seen 40 cases over the course of the pandemic, although none of those cases is still active. Four people from the congregation have died. The church has since moved services outside and has been taking precautions.

Peace has been campaigning for awareness and caution in the county, where she says residents are not doing enough to protect themselves and their neighbors.

Total COVID-19 cases, deaths by county

This North Carolina map of COVID-19 cases is updated daily based on cumulative numbers of county-level COVID-19 cases and deaths reported by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Click on or hover over any highlighted county in the map to see details of the cases in that county. Darker shaded counties have the highest number of cases. NOTE: As of Sept. 28, the data on this map includes cases and deaths identified both through PCR and antigen tests.

Source: N.C. DHHS
Graphic: Alex Phillips & Tyler Dukes, WRAL

"We need to do the work because our children are suffering. We're suffering as a community, and I've always been afraid that our hospital system might be overwhelmed," Peace said.

At Southeastern Health, 18 people were being treated for COVID-19 Wednesday, and another six patients were suspected of having the virus and waiting for test results. The facility can accommodate 48 coronavirus patients.

To date, more than 1,000 cases of coronavirus and 13 COVID-19 deaths were linked to religious gatherings statewide, with the number of church-related clusters on the rise since September, according to data published Wednesday by DHHS.

Religious gatherings were third, behind meat-packing plants and colleges and universities, as a source of the greatest community spread, according to a new report on the origin of clusters of coronavirus cases issued by NCDHHS on Wednesday.

“As community spread of COVID-19 continues in North Carolina, clusters of cases are being identified in workplaces, educational settings and many other community locations,” DHHS stated in a release.

Meat and poultry processing plants have the highest number of cases reported since May, at 3,841, and 19 deaths.

Colleges or universities are second on the list, with 1,902 cases

Religious gatherings have seen the largest increase since late September.

The state press release points out that these numbers are actually likely higher, because, “while congregate living settings, schools and childcare are required to report clusters or outbreaks to their [local health departments], other settings are not required to report in the same manner.”

The new cluster report is scheduled to be updated every Tuesday and Friday by noon.​

Robeson County has the second-highest rate of positive tests in North Carolina, trailing only Duplin County, and has reported 5,702 cases to date, or a rate of 4,339 per 100,000 population. In 2019, the county population was just about 130,000. Eighty-seven people in the county have died of COVID-19.

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