At a press conference Tuesday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine shared a graphic demonstrating how a 56-year-old man who attended a church service in Tuscarawas County spread COVID-19 to 91 people. One surprising aspect of the chart was how few of the people who contracted the virus were in what we have understood to be the high-risk age group.
“It spread like wildfire. Very, very scary,” said DeWine. He noted, “We’ve been very careful throughout this pandemic to exempt religious services from any regulations. The only exception to that is that we’re now asking people who attend church to wear a mask. But it’s vital that to control the spread of the virus that any time—any time—people get together, including for religious services, that everyone wear masks, practice social distancing, wash their hands and also while indoors, make sure there’s good ventilation and air flow.”
The governor said he would be sending a letter to Ohio’s faith-based communities providing the latest health information and sharing measures by which faith leaders could protect worshipers. “We know that our faith-based leaders want nothing more than to protect those who come to worship,” said DeWine. “We want to provide our faith communities with all the information we can from doctors and health experts to arm them with the tools to conduct services safely. Our religious faiths are at the core of our great state and our great country. We thank our faith-based leaders for all they do to serve God and God’s people.”
Tuscarawas County Church Site of COVID-19 Outbreak
The graphic, which was created by the Tuscarawas County Health Department (TCHD) in cooperation with the Ohio Department of Health, shows the ages and genders of every person infected by the virus through the man who was the initial case. The chart also shows the relationships between the “primary cases” (the first group the man spread it to) and the secondary and third-level cases.
Very few of the people who contracted COVID-19 in this outbreak were in the typical high-risk age group. The majority of them were in their twenties, thirties, or forties, and several were teenagers or children, one as young as one year old. A 64-year-old man, a 66-year-old man, and a 67-year-old woman were the oldest people infected and were the only people out of the 91 who were in their 60s. While the CDC specifies that older people are at a greater risk of an increased severity in their symptoms, some have taken “high-risk” to mean that because they are younger, they are less likely to catch the virus at all. And there have been reports that COVID-19 can result in severe symptoms among younger people.
The infected man attended the church service on June 14, and by July 4, the virus had spread to 91 people in five counties. Fifty-three of those people were at the original church service. Tuscarawas County Health Commissioner Katie Seward would not release the name of the church, although she confirmed it was in Tuscarawas County. Seward also clarified that it was not Dennison Foursquare Church, where it is known that someone who was asymptomatic attended at least two services.
The Tuscarawas County Health Department provided more information about the outbreak in response to questions on Facebook. According to TCHD, the church members did not share a communion cup and did practice social distancing. However, said the department, “We believe that the fact that the church service lasted 1.5-2 hours and it was a closed room that poor ventilation contributed to the spread.” TCHD also said that some people were wearing masks and some were not. Quite a few comments were critical of the chart, questioning how the health department could know for certain that the outbreak originated at the church. Several people also wanted to know why there were no case studies of outbreaks originating at Walmart or at a protest.
TCHD responded that it was clear the outbreak originated at a church because of contact tracing and noted the department always asks people what activities they have been involved in (including whether or not they participated in a riot or a protest). Said TCHD, “We will be more than happy to provide examples from [a riot or protest] when we have one. At this point places of employment, social gatherings and churchs [sic] have been points of spread in Tuscarawas County.”