CLEARFIELD — On March 16, the Arkansas Department of Health became aware of the first two confirmed COVID-19 cases in one rural county: a married couple in which the husband served as the pastor of a community church.
The couple had attended church events from March 6 through 8, and the pastor attended a Bible study group on March 11. Later that same day, he developed a fever and respiratory symptoms; his wife had taken ill the day before.
The health department later identified two church members who had been symptomatic during the March 6-8 events. From these first two cases, 35 of 92 church attendees ultimately tested positive for COVID-19, and three died. Moreover, at least 26 additional cases were identified as a result of direct contact with infected church members, and one of those people died, too.
This case study, identified in a May 19 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was highlighted by the Davis County Health Department this week as a cautionary tale for churchgoers.
A recent CDC study found that in March, COVID-19 was spread to 35 church attendees when 2 symptomatic individuals...Posted by Davis County Health Department on Thursday, May 21, 2020
Utah's largest faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has given the green light to resume some in-person church activities this weekend after suspending gatherings on March 12.
Using state and federal guidelines, new church policies aim to avoid a repeat of the outbreak at the Arkansas church.
Davis County health officials posted on Facebook on Thursday: "As we begin to resume group gatherings, it is vital for everyone to do their part by not attending when sick, staying 6 feet away from others not in the same household, and wearing a face covering or mask if brief close contact cannot be avoided. While larger group sizes are allowed, smaller groups are still preferred. We recommend a baby step approach to resuming religious services."
The county, like most of the state, is sitting at the "low risk" level under Utah Leads Together guidelines. But whether the community is at "low risk" or "moderate risk" — like Salt Lake City, West Valley City, Magna, Bluff, Mexican Hat and Grand County — the guidelines for religious services are essentially the same. Religious gatherings of any size are technically permitted, but family units are asked to social distance from others by at least 6 feet, meaning some services will be constrained by the size of the chapel they take place in.
And for high-risk Utahns, Davis County Health Department spokesperson Isa Perry said it's not time to return to the pews just yet.
"The Utah Leads Together phased guidance continues to emphasize that high-risk individuals shoud take extra precautions," Perry said, "and should not be part of group gatherings, and so should not attend. So that would include those who are 65-plus, those who are immunocompromised at any age, who have underlying health conditions, or who are pregnant."
Perry said COVID-19 "is still circulating" in Davis County; there are 84 confirmed, active cases in the county, and seven residents hospitalized.
"We're not back to normal," she said.
Some religious groups have already resumed gatherings in the past several weeks using the state's recommendations. Utah Department of Health spokesperson Charla Haley said the state is unaware of any new COVID-19 cases related to religious services at this time.
Haley said Utahns need to make the best decision for themselves and their families when considering whether to attend services.
"I would carefully weigh your health issues, if you have any ... you want to think carefully about going to service," she said.
If you do go, she said, "wear a mask, social distance as best you can, and keep with your own family group."
One of the natural tendencies of many congregations is to linger after the service and catch up with friends. For families who want to chat, Haley suggested holding a socially distanced picnic at the park, rather than packing a church foyer. She reemphasized the importance of wearing a mask, especially in situations where, as at church, it will be difficult to distance through an entire visit, despite best efforts.
"Don't be embarrassed by wearing a mask, or don't feel like you stand out," Haley said. "You may go to the grocery store and you're the only one wearing a mask, but at least you know that you're doing what you can."
Perry said Davis County residents have done a "really exceptional job protecting those most vulnerable."
"It's hard when we want to gather, we want to be together, we just have to be patient and just kind of continue with these baby steps."
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