Revival linked to COVID-19

Deaths of 6 Metro Revival attendees may be connected to the coronavirus

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 4/30/2020, 6 p.m.
A three-night revival in early March that brought more than 1,200 people from across the Richmond area to Cedar Street …
Dr. Avula Photo by Regina H. Boone

A three-night revival in early March that brought more than 1,200 people from across the Richmond area to Cedar Street Baptist Church of God in Church Hill each evening appears to have helped spread the coronavirus in the African-American community.

Concerns about a connection between the virus and the 2020 Metro Revival sponsored by the Baptist Ministers’ Conference of Richmond & Vicinity from March 9 through 11 have been rife among participants and Cedar Street church members.

Those concerns have now been validated by a Richmond Health District official and the release of information that had been shared largely among African-American ministers who are members of the conference and those who participated in the revival but not made public.

“There were some small outbreaks within the larger outbreaks among the revival choir and another group from Cedar Street Baptist,” Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond City and Henrico County public health districts, stated April 24 in an email response to a Free Press query.

“Multiple lab-confirmed positive cases were identified from this church or from exposures at the revival,” Dr. Avula stated.

While church members shared information with the Free Press about six participants who have died since the revival, Dr. Avula stated that only one of the deaths has been confirmed as resulting from COVID-19.

“That may be the case,” said one member of Cedar Street church. “No one has provided a cause of death for most of those who have died, and their deaths might be from unrelated reasons. We just don’t know, but it has worried us.”

Dr. Avula said the link between the virus and the revival turned up after one sick Chesterfield County resident tested positive.

Public health investigators found the connection based on interviews with people who had come in contact with the Chesterfield resident, Dr. Avula said. The Virginia Department of Health, through its local offices, then worked with the organizer of the revival to notify the pastors and others who attended.

The Cedar Street church members who spoke with the Free Press on condition of anonymity said no such notice was given to them. All had taken part in the revival.

“All we know is that Cedar Street was closed and was being disinfected,” another member of the church said.

The revival featured Dr. Lance D. Watson, pastor of The Saint Paul’s Baptist Church, and took place just before Gov. Ralph S. Northam declared a coronavirus-related state of emergency on March 12 and urged everyone to limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people.

Although Gov. Northam did not issue an official order until March 23 banning large gatherings, including church services, most churches in the area canceled Sunday services on March 15 and began holding them online after that. Only a small fraction ignored the warnings that holding traditional services could spread the virus.

Based on the health district’s investigations, Dr. Avula stated in a follow-up message that church services were not a major source of the spread.

“Early on, church gatherings accounted for a few of our confirmed cases, but most churches shut things down by the second (and definitely the third Sunday) in March,” he stated.

“We are still getting our arms around the data, but I feel like our cases (in Richmond and Henrico) fall into a few large buckets,” he stated.

Those large buckets include: Initially, travelers to other communities who got infected and then brought it back to the Richmond area; residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities; and people who have ongoing exposure through the workplace.

He noted those findings are being backed up in the new testing being conducted in public housing and other low-income communities in Richmond and Henrico.

He stated Monday that health district testing last week at the Southwood Apartments in South Side indicates that the workplace may be a bigger contributor to the spread of the virus. He noted that of the 69 people tested at the affordable housing complex near Southside Plaza, 12 people tested positive, or 17.4 percent.

Across the state, about 15 percent of those tested are found to be positive for the virus, he said.

Within Richmond, about 60 percent of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and 93 percent of the people who have died are African-American.