New data: More COVID-19 clusters in NC coming from social gatherings, religious services

Coronavirus

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – More clusters of COVID-19 are being reported after social gatherings and religious services, according to newly released data.

According to a report from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, COVID-19 cases associated with clusters in religious gatherings have increased since mid-September. Cluster-associated cases at social gatherings like parties, weddings, and funerals increased in September.

“Our community has to gather in a different way, but we can still be community to each other,” said Associate Pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church Chalice Overy.

Overy said since the COVID-19 crisis began in March, they’ve held services virtually.

“We weren’t going to expose our congregation to danger by inviting people to be there in person,” Overy said.

She said that last month, church leaders considered inviting members back for in-person service in accordance with Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders, but felt the case count was still too high.

“If our condition is not any better, it doesn’t really matter how much time it’s been. That’s something we’ve always been committed to is the governor’s recommendations, and also paying attention to the numbers rather than our desire to reconnect,” she said.

According to data released Monday by DHHS, college and university campuses have reported the greatest number of COVID-19 clusters with 175. There were 88 clusters reported at religious gatherings, followed by 65 clusters reported at manufacturing workplaces.

The greatest number of cluster-associated cases have been reported at meat and poultry processing plants with 3,842 cases, according to DHHS. Colleges and universities reported the second largest number of cluster-associated cases with 1,959. That is followed by 1,180 cluster-associated cases at religious gatherings.

The most cluster-associated deaths have been reported at meat and poultry processing plants at 19. There were 18 cluster-related deaths been reported at religious gatherings, followed by 10 at independent living facilities.

According to the DHHS data, cluster-associated cases at colleges and universities held steady since September after peaking in August.

DHHS said no cluster-associated cases have been reported in October in agriculture, food processing, or construction/contractor workplaces.

Dr. Abhi Mehrotra, the Vice-Chair of the UNC Department of Emergency Medicine who oversees the UNC Health system’s emergency department group, said the clusters of cases vary by region across the state.

He said the virus is still very active, which concerns him as flu season approaches.

“We’re seeing not just the COVID care, but the non-COVID care, as well. That’s really straining the system in terms of the number of patients in hospital beds,” he said.

Mehrotra said the rise in cases in social and religious settings is a reminder that everyone should social distance, wear masks, and frequently wash their hands in every environment.

“I know that everyone is tired. Our staff is tired. Those that you talk to in the community, my neighbors, are tired. But the rules are there, the guidelines are there on sound evidence. Especially what I worry about is with the cold weather months being indoors and having gatherings,” he said.

A cluster is defined as five or more cases present in the same general setting during the same time period.

The DHHS data represent clusters reported after May 22. However, clusters in meat and poultry processing were tracked beginning in April.

While congregate living settings and schools are required to report clusters to the local health department, other settings are not.

DHHS said the data are limited to clusters voluntarily reported or identified through contact tracing, and therefor could be an under representation.

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