A new report from the Skagit County Public Health Department in Washington state published by the CDC Friday, shows how quickly the coronavirus spread after a choir practice became a “superspreader event” for the disease that infected 86% of attending members and killed two of them.
Now state health officials say the findings in the report, based on the experience of Skagit Valley Chorale that normally rehearses at the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church on Tuesday evenings and once a month on a Saturday morning, could have significant implications for future church gatherings.
"It's really important that people realize that by meeting, by gathering, 86% of them could become ill and the results and aftermath of that is hard to fathom," Skagit County Health Officer Dr. Howard Leibrand said in a King 5 report.
The report from the health department showed how the 122-member chorale was likely exposed to a “superemitter” of the virus who attended choir practice on March 3 and March 10.
“One person at the March 10 practice had cold-like symptoms beginning March 7. This person, who had also attended the March 3 practice, had a positive laboratory result for SARS-CoV-2 by reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing,” the report said.
Of the 78 members who attended the March 3 practice, 51 or 65.4% of them got infected with the virus. All but one of the infected individuals from the March 3 practice were among the 60 members who also attended the March 10 practice, 86.7% of them tested positive for the disease. Among the 21 members who only attended the March 3 practice only one of them became ill.
“The 2.5-hour singing practice provided several opportunities for droplet and fomite transmission, including members sitting close to one another, sharing snacks, and stacking chairs at the end of the practice. The act of singing, itself, might have contributed to transmission through emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization,” the report said.
“Certain persons, known as superemitters, who release more aerosol particles during speech than do their peers, might have contributed to this and previously reported COVID-19 superspreading events,” the researchers added.
They explained that the findings from this event shows “the high transmissibility” of the coronavirus as well as “the possibility of superemitters contributing to broad transmission in certain unique activities and circumstances.”
"They were sitting closely together and spending time there and then they would switch chairs, share snacks, and they might have touched surfaces other people infected touched," Lea Hamner, co-author of the report and communicable disease and epidemiology lead at Skagit County Health told King 5.
All of this activity occurred at a time when Skagit Valley had no reported cases yet even though the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Washington state on Jan. 21.
In a March 23 statement, the Skagit Valley Chorale said that during the dates they were holding rehearsals, schools, restaurants, churches, bowling alleys, banks, libraries, theaters, and other businesses also remained open.
“The advice from the state of Washington was to limit gatherings to 250 people. There were no recommendations from Skagit County Health Department regarding meeting sizes, but they did state that people over 60 should avoid ‘large public gatherings,’” the group said.
Still, the chorale’s board of directors tried to be careful. They urged all members to stay away from rehearsals on March 3 and March 10 if they showed any symptoms of illness, no matter the cause.
They also advised anyone who felt their health or safety was in jeopardy to not attend.
“Each member was left to determine for him/herself whether to attend. At no time was anyone pressured to attend if they were uncomfortable doing so,” the group said.
Despite the precautions taken, however, very few of the chorale members were spared from contracting the virus.
As a result of the high transmissibility of the virus the researchers recommend that people avoid face-to-face contact with others, not gather in groups, avoid crowded places, maintain physical distancing of at least 6 feet to reduce transmission, and wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist pastor in California and the author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus, argued in a New York Times op-ed Thursday that while some churches are pushing to reopen despite the lack of a vaccine for the coronavirus — and there's no guarantee that there ever will be a vaccine for COVID-19 — most churches are taking the virus seriously.
“While pastors defying closure orders have grabbed headlines, the reality is that over 90 percent of pastors and church leaders complied with shutdown orders in March and many are still waiting until later in May and into June before resuming public worship — even in states where restrictions are weakening,” he wrote. “Most pastors that I have engaged with take seriously the responsibility to navigate this national tragedy with wisdom, compassion and patience.”
In Alabama for example, even though Gov. Kay Ivey is now allowing churches to resume meeting, many churches in Alabama continue to use online services and plan to wait a bit longer before reopening for in-person services.
The largest church in the state, the Church of the Highlands, will continue to emphasize watching online services and Pastor Chris Hodges, said there were no plans to return to in-person group worship before May 31.
Ivey’s pastor, the Rev. Jay Wolf, pastor of Montgomery First Baptist who advised her on church safety issues, told AL.com that he believes it will be no sooner than May 31 before in-person services begin. Even then, he said, it might not even be safe for a large church to meet in person.
Bishop Stephen A. Davis, pastor of the 5,000-member Refresh Family Church, formerly known as New Birth Birmingham, told AL.com that right now, “We still think it’s too risky.”
“We’re waiting another couple of weeks just to be safe,” Davis said. “Just because the state reopens businesses doesn’t mean it’s safe to bring that many people together.”