The interior of a US church.
Getty
  • A church in Oregon has become the epicenter of the state's largest coronavirus outbreak.
  • Other reports have documented superspreader events at US churches and synagogues as well as a South Korean temple.
  • The CDC warns that large indoor gatherings, including church events, can be potential coronavirus transmission hotspots.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

A small church in northeastern Oregon is the site of the state's largest coronavirus outbreak to date.

More than 230 members of the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Union County tested positive for the virus after the church held services in defiance of Oregon's stay-at-home order.

The cases contributed to Oregon's second consecutive day of record-high new cases: On Tuesday, the state reported 278 new cases, 94 more than the previous record of 184. The surge prompted Gov. Kate Brown to put a hold on the state's reopening plan for the next week.

The cluster of cases offers further evidence that gatherings at houses of worship are highly risky situations when it comes to coronavirus transmission.

Oregon's church outbreak can be considered a superspreader event, an instance in which one person infects an atypically large number of others. Such events mostly happen indoors, when lots of people from different households come into close, extended contact.

"You can't have a super-spreading event unless there are a lot of people around, so you have to be very careful still about gatherings of people of any size - that includes religious services," William Schaffner, an infectious-disease expert from Vanderbilt University, previously told Business Insider.

More than 60% of churchgoers tested were infected

People pray at St. Michael's Church in Brooklyn, New York, on May 26, 2020.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
Oregon went into lockdown on March 23, when Gov. Brown issued an executive order that prohibited social and recreational gatherings, shuttered non-essential businesses, and encouraged residents to stay home.

But the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church held in-person worship services in April and May in violation of Brown's order, according toThe Observer. In Union County, a rural area in the northeastern part of the state where the church is located, gatherings of more 25 people were banned until June 8.

Dr. Tom Jeanne, Oregon's deputy state epidemiologist, told the Associated Press that state health officials tested "the majority of the congregation at the church" for coronavirus. Of 365 members tested, they found, 236 were infected. Five people associated with the outbreak are in the hospital, but no one in Union County has died, Jeanne added.

Healthcare professionals test for coronavirus.
Steve Pfost/Newsday RM via Getty
The fact that so many churchgoers tested positive at the same time suggests that most infections occurred among the congregation, not in the broader community, Jeanne told Oregon Public Broadcasting.

"It could have been one service or one event that was responsible for the majority of transmissions," he said. "It's a little early to tell."

Prior to the discovery of this outbreak, Union County had reported less than 25 cases.

Why houses of worship are superspreading hotspots

The coronavirus primarily spreads via droplets that fly through the air when an infected person coughs talks, or sneezes. Recent studies have linked talking loudly and vigorous singing to the virus' spread.

Overall, research increasingly shows that the risk of coronavirus transmission is much higher indoors, in poorly ventilated spaces in which lots of people have sustained contact. Unfortunately, houses of worship check all of those boxes.

The Lighthouse Pentecostal Church's experience isn't unique - other houses of worship have been connected to superspreading events, too.

In early March, a 57-year-old Arkansas pastor and his wife attended church events and a bible study group a few days before they developed coronavirus symptoms. Of the 92 people they came into contact with at the church, 35 got sick. Seven had to be hospitalised. Three died.

Then contact tracers from the Arkansas Department of Health discovered 26 more cases among people who reported contact with the infected churchgoers and one additional death. According to a May CDC report chronicling that super-spreader event, "group gatherings during church events" could be a source of widespread coronavirus transmission.

"These findings underscore the opportunity for faith-based organisations to prevent Covid-19 by following local authorities' guidance," the report said.

Similarly, one of New York state's biggest outbreaks was linked to a 50-year-old attorney from Westchester County who attended a bat mitzvah and a birthday party at his synagogue. Lawrence Garbuz was hospitalised with Covid-19 in late February and was among the state's first confirmed cases. A week later, New York had confirmed 170 cases, most of which were linked to Garbuz and in his county.

His wife and two children got sick, as did the neighbour who drove Garbuz to the hospital, the rabbi from his synagogue, and many of the congregants he'd interacted with.

A couple months later, a CDC report suggested that houses of worship might facilitate coronavirus transmission "beyond household contacts into the broader community."

That's not just true in the US: A church-linked outbreak also led South Korea's case total to skyrocket in mid-February. After a 61-year-old woman attended services at the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, she tested positive - then so did 43 other attendees.

Followers of the religious group had been asked to remove protective masks to pray.

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