This story was updated on June 16, 2020, at 12 p.m. to include additional context about the Graystone Baptist Church.
The coronavirus outbreak at the Graystone Baptist Church in Ronceverte, Greenbrier County, is now linked to at least 28 cases of COVID-19, with several hundred tests from residents still pending.
News first broke of an outbreak on Saturday, June 13, when the county health department reported 17 cases linked to the church.
County health officials anticipate after four days of free local testing they’ll identify more positive cases of COVID-19 over the next few days. According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, the West Virginia National Guard helped test 475 people in Greenbrier County between Sunday and Monday.
This is the fifth known outbreak linked to a West Virginia church in recent months, according to the DHHR, and is by far the largest.
State health officials said several of these churches did not effectively enforce guidelines for social distancing and wearing masks, safety precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to mitigate potential spread of the coronavirus.
"Graystone Baptist Church declined interview requests from West Virginia Public Broadcasting. On Monday, the church's pastor told the Beckley Register-Herald that several parishioners did not wear face masks, and that people were shaking hands."
“I think it's important not to point fingers, but just to learn from every situation,” said county health officer Bridgett Morrison. “I think that everyone in our community, in our state and, for that matter, even our nation has become a little bit lax, when practicing social distancing and wearing a mask. … So, we encourage everyone to continue wearing masks and practice social distancing.”
Morrison said she urges all people who were at the church, or who may have been in contact with someone who attended the church, to seek testing through their health care providers.
The Guard wrapped up its fourth and final scheduled day of free testing in Greenbrier County Monday afternoon. The Guard also cleaned the church Sunday, shutting it down for at least two more weeks.
Morrison said several local churches have resumed in-person services since closing their doors to large crowds in March. Several more are still conducting services online, and virtually.
The DHHR is not tracking any other major outbreaks at this time. The last big outbreak on the state’s was the more than 100 cases of COVID-19 at the Huttonsville Correctional Center in Randolph County.
Since then, the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it has finished testing all of its jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers and community corrections centers on Friday, June 12.
There are now 12 positive prisoners total and six positive DCR employees, according to data from the division on Sunday. In Huttonsville, the DCR reported 119 people in recovery from COVID-19, and four prisoners still dealing with the disease.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.