CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Coronavirus outbreaks were linked to three churches in West Virginia on Wednesday as officials urged parishioners to follow safety guidelines and warned about the virus spreading into surrounding communities.
Local health authorities said Greenbrier County’s Graystone Baptist Church has at least 33 cases and Ohio County’s First Baptist Church has four positives, though many tests are still pending in both counties. Bloomingrose Church of Christ in Boone County has four active cases.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice and his health officials have instructed churches to follow social distancing guidelines and asked worshipers to wear masks, saying that the virus could easily pass from congregants into the general population.
“Church, our most holy and sacred ground, absolutely could be the number one spot where the biggest possibility of an outbreak could happen,” Justice said.
Justice, who has pushed forward with an aggressive plan to reopen the state’s economy, excluded religious entities from virus closures, deeming the facilities essential. Still, he encouraged them to hold virtual services and issued a set of safety guidelines for in-person events.
The outbreaks come after similar spikes associated with churches and other large gatherings. Several cases have emerged after a group of West Virginians recently traveled to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Health officials have acknowledged that there will be flare-ups as lockdown measures are eased and people resume normal activities.
At least 88 people in West Virginia have died from the virus and around 2,400 have tested positive, according to state health data.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal. The vast majority of people recover.