William “Bill” Barton, a greeter at Greers Ferry First Assembly in Cleburne County, Arkansas, where at least 34 people have been struck by the new coronavirus became first of the infected to die Tuesday. He was 91.
State and local government officials confirmed the 91-year-old died at 8 a.m. Tuesday at Conway Regional Medical Center, and was the second coronavirus fatality in the state, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. The first was a 59-year-old Sherwood man who had underlying health issues.
“Sadly we’ve had our first death from COVID-19 and since that came about earlier today, we’ve had another death so now we have two deaths from COVID-19,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said at a press conference Tuesday.
“Today, I’ve had meetings with hospitals, I’ve had meetings with counties, legislators in talking to my public health team. They used this language and said what we’re seeing is the calm before the storm. I know that many people don’t see this as a calm but I think the way that it’s phrased, makes us understand that we’re still on the lower end of the slope as it goes up,” he warned.
While the church has yet to release a formal statement on Barton’s passing, member Gracie Campbell confirmed with the Gazette that Barton had passed and was a greeter at the church.
His funeral arrangements are currently being handled by Bishop-Crites Funeral Home in Greenbrier, where owner Jeff Crites told The Christian Post Wednesday that Barton’s family was distraught and wouldn’t be available for interviews.
“My main concern is taking care of the family,” Crites said.
When asked if he had any concerns about the impact of the coronavirus on funerals in general, Crites said they were following “universal precautions.”
“I will not go into the church. We’re restricting everything to graveside services only. It’s sad,” he said.
“We use universal precaution on everybody. Everybody is contagious. That’s the way you’ve got to look at it because we don’t know when we first get them (the bodies).”
Barton’s death comes just days after the church’s pastor, Mark Palenske who is recovering from the virus along with his wife Dena, warned others not to underestimate how dangerous the virus is and treat it with “wisdom and restraint.”
“There was very little in my training for the ministry that covered the full measure of what our church family has dealt with in the past few weeks,” Palenske said in a statement on Facebook Sunday.
“The intensity of this virus has been underestimated by so many, and I continue to ask that each of you take it very seriously. An act of wisdom and restraint on your part can be the blessing that preserves the health of someone else.”
Donald Shipp, a deacon of the church who is also infected with the virus along with his wife, told The Arkansas Democrat Gazette on Monday that at least 34 people connected with the church tested positive for the virus and several others are still awaiting results after a children’s event held at the church on March 5-8. Of those who tested positive for the virus, 31 are on staff at the church or are members, Shipp said. The others are two evangelists who led the children’s event and a child who was visiting.
"You've got to be about as tough as it is," Shipp said of the virus. "We are slowly but surely wearing it out."
Campbell, who confirmed Barton’s passing, told the Gazette earlier that both her and her husband, Chuck, have also been sick and are currently among those awaiting test results.
"I think it was just bad timing," she said of the children’s event that is the suspected source of the massive community spread.
"I'm sure there are plenty of people walking around exposed [to the virus] and don't even know it, and other people that don't care," Campbell said. "That's the sad thing. There are people that don't even believe that it is a virus and that's ridiculous."
Of the more than 200 coronavirus cases in Arkansas, officials revealed on Tuesday that 11 are children. Data from Johns Hopkins as of Wednesday morning showed that more than 55,000 people across the U.S. have been infected with the coronavirus and just over 800 have died. Global figures stood at nearly 440,000 infections and nearly 20,000 deaths.
Officials say the outbreak of the virus at Greers Ferry First Assembly of God is responsible for the spread of the disease in the relatively small Cleburne County, which has a population of 25,000. The county now has the second highest number of coronavirus cases in the state.
"It appears, from what I know at this time, most of the cases that we have in our county" are related to the Greers Ferry church, Jerry Holmes, county judge of Cleburne County, told the Gazette.