Church Outbreak: A look at what’s next in WV’s effort to control COVID-19 in the state’s African American population


Mount Zion Baptist

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – As detailed in previous reports, a large gathering of members of north central West Virginia black churches in mid-March led to at least two COVID-19 deaths and a large number of positive cases. Out of that, a debate has arisen over how local and state officials responded to the situation. We know there have been deaths, hospitalizations and recoveries related to the church outbreak, but what’s next?

WV Gov. Jim Justice

“We are going to do targeted testing in our African American communities. We are looking at these communities and looking at them and doing the prudent type work that will enable us to insure that we won’t have critical problems in those communities as well.” As the debate continued in both traditional media and on social media, those were the words of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice as he and state health officials announced the formation of an advisory task force focused on the state’s African American population.

“That is for the African American issues, that will help with public outreach and education as we begin providing testing for this vulnerable population in several areas of the state,” WV DHHR Sec. Bill Crouch said.

WV DHHR Sec. Bill Crouch

On Friday, Crouch gave an update on the task force, saying that potential members had been contacted and that an initial meeting was being planned for Monday. State Health Officer Dr. Cathy Slemp also offered up data illustrating that infection rates among African Americans in West Virginia exceed their percentage of the state’s population. Slemp promised that additional demographic data would be added to the DHHR’s coronavirus dashboard by Friday evening.

Romelia Hodges

Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church member Romelia Hodges, who’s been outspoken since learning of the church outbreak, wants to meet with public health officials about the data. “We have individuals that were actually tested positive that were not counted in the public health officials count,” said Hodges.

Marion County Health Department Administrator Lloyd White told 12 News that epidemiology for the county, including data related to the church outbreak, is still being completed. The latest numbers released by the health department show that Marion County has had 45 total cases. That includes the two deaths, six active cases and 37 recoveries. With the contact tracing not complete, it is unclear how many of those 45 cases are tied to the church celebration.

The wife of Morning Star Baptist Church Pastor Wesley Dobbs is among those who’ve recovered. “No symptoms are appearing in her. Everything going great. We are following the guidelines that the governor has set down. She’s doing great,” Dobbs said.

Hodges and the team she formed to help with contact tracing are happy to see action being taken.

“Seeing the implementation of the three items we asked for from Dr. Marsh put into place. And were looking for the full effect of those going forward,” Hodges said.

Team member Tiffany Walker-Samuels read an email from Dr. Marsh to 12 News: “He says appreciate you both. Let’s not congratulate ourselves to soon until we execute and implement. Clay.”

Next week, 12 News plans to talk with other church members affected by the outbreak, as well as provide an update on the task force meeting scheduled for Monday.

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