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CDC tracks cluster of coronavirus cases in rural Arkansas to church, raising alarm on religious gatherings

A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks past the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, March 14, 2020.

Elijah Nouvelage | Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked a cluster of coronavirus cases in rural Arkansas back to a church pastor and his wife, indicating that faith-based organizations and events could be sources of Covid-19 transmission, according to a new study published Tuesday.

“This outbreak highlights the potential for widespread transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, both at group gatherings during church events and within the broader community,” the researchers wrote. “Faith-based organizations that are operating or planning to resume in-person operations, including regular services, funerals, or other events, should be aware of the potential for high rates of transmission of SARS-CoV-2.”

The report comes as state officials across the country chart a path to reopening parts of society. Governors have placed varying degrees of restrictions on faith-based organizations from the start of the outbreak. Officials in Louisiana, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Delaware and Michigan had previously carved out certain exemptions for religious activities under the statewide restrictions. 

At the Arkansas church, the pastor and his wife were the first two confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the county of about 25,000, the CDC says. Officials from the Arkansas Department of Health began an investigation on March 16 to understand the source of transmission and to identify others who might have been exposed.

The investigation traced the two infections to a three-day children’s event held at the church between March 6 and March 8 and a Bible study group held on March 11.

The CDC didn’t identify the church, but the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported March 23 that 34 members of the First Assemblies of God Church in Greers Ferry who attended a children’s event there tested positive for the virus.

The CDC study said 92 attendees were contacted by health officials. Of those, 45 people were tested for Covid-19, 35 of those tests were positive and three of the people died. Asymptomatic attendees were not “routinely tested,” the CDC said.

Spread of the virus within this event also leaked into the broader community, the CDC researchers said. At least 26 people who reported contact with attendees of the church tested positive for Covid-19 and one of them died, the researchers said.

“These persons likely were infected by church A attendees,” the researchers concluded. “These organizations should work with local health officials to determine how to implement the U.S. Government’s guidelines for modifying activities during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent transmission of the virus to their members and their communities.”

— CNBC’s Tucker Higgins contributed to this report.

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