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Holiday church gathering in North Carolina leads to 97 COVID-19 cases and counting

A spokesperson for the local health department said more cases are expected among close contacts of attendees.
/ Source: TODAY

A holiday celebration at a church in a small town in North Carolina has led to 97 COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday morning, and this number is expected to grow in the coming days, a spokesperson for the local health department told TODAY.

The gathering took place at First Baptist Church, Hendersonville, located south of Asheville, over the Dec. 5 weekend and was a multi-day event, according to a statement from the Henderson County Department of Public Health and its communications manager, Andrew Mundhenk. As of Dec. 17, the county had linked 75 cases to the event, and the health department is still working to identify close contacts of attendees.

Of the confirmed 97 cases, all are among attendees, Mundhenk said. The health department is not aware of any deaths at this time. However, "some cases" from the event have resulted in hospitalizations, Mundhenk said. The health department did not have specifics on how many.

Asked if he expects this cluster to grow due to cases in attendees' close contacts, Mundhenk said yes, adding, "We're seeing more cases every day."

The First Baptist Church said in a Dec. 15 statement that it was instituting a 30-day pause "in regard to on-site worship" including "all ministry activities" but did not specifically address the outbreak.

"The current wave of virus infection is so widespread that we must take action out of concern for the safety of our church, our community, and especially those who are most vulnerable in our midst," the statement read. "We will look at conditions in mid-January to see how and when we should move forward."

Reached for comment by TODAY, the church said it would release an updated statement sometime soon, but declined to provide additional details about whether the event was indoors and if attendees were required to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Henderson County's current limit on indoor gatherings is 10 people, but this does not apply to "worship, religious, spiritual gatherings," according to North Carolina's health department.

"We're just really concerned with transmission in the community overall, when people are dropping their guard down, when they're with people close to them," Mundhenk said.

Since the coronavirus epidemic began, Henderson County has seen about 4,600 cases of COVID-19 and 89 deaths. According to the latest tally from NBC News, North Carolina has seen about 864,000 cases to date, the 12th most of U.S. states, and about 6,500 deaths.