How Woburn church COVID-19 cluster may have happened even under state restrictions

How Woburn church COVID-19 cluster may have happened even under state restrictions

WOBURN, Mass. — Dozens of worshippers at a Woburn church have tested positive for COVID-19 following Christmas Eve services despite the many precautions the pastors said the church took.

Pastor Michael Davis told Boston 25 News that Genesis church had an average of 105 people at each of its four services on Dec. 23 and 24. That’s a building occupancy of 35%, which was below the state’s then-40% maximum capacity.

Mask-wearing and social distancing were practiced, with hand sanitizing stations throughout the building, Davis said.

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Dr. C. Michael Gibson, a cardiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told Boston 25 News that even strictly following the state’s COVID-19 guidelines can leave room for transmission.

“It looks like [the church] played by all the rules,” Gibson said, “but remember, whether you have transmission depends upon how close those people are, how long they are next to each other, how loud they are and how much ventilation there is.”

Services were one hour long, with an hour in between for disinfecting, Davis said.

Indoor gatherings have 20 times the risk of virus transmission than outdoor gatherings do, Gibson said. And sitting in one place among other people for an hour, especially if ventilation isn’t adequate, increases risk, he added.

The only people who were not wearing masks at church were the speakers and singers, on a stage 16 feet from the first row, as the state requires, Davis said in an email to Boston 25 News.

Transmission, however, can occur over that distance, especially when projecting one’s voice, Gibson said.

“If people are singing without a mask, we know from more recent research that those particles can travel in a cloud of droplets 20 to 30 feet away,” Gibson said.

For now, the church building is closed; services are online only. Gibson said that is the safest way to worship.

“It’s such a sad situation because so many people rely on their faith to give them hope. And then when things like this happen, it really, really hurts,” Gibson said. “We can re-establish our faith and our hope, but it may have to be through online worship for the time being.”

Davis declined an interview with Boston 25 News but said he and the church are working with the local health department on contact tracing.

“We are deeply saddened to learn that people within GENESIS tested positive for COVID-19, and we are doing all we can to make sure this does not spread any further,” Davis said in a statement. “We are praying for a quick and full recovery for all those impacted by COVID-19.”

Gibson said the outbreak reinforces the need to speed up vaccination in order to outpace the spread of the virus and its variant.

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