Whitmer, Khaldun note uptick in COVID outbreaks related to religious services

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan officials are raising concerns about an uptick in COVID-19 cases associated with religious gatherings. 

Of the state's 393 ongoing outbreaks — many of which are associated with longterm care facilities — 18 of them or 5% have been linked to religious gatherings, Chief Medical Executive Joneigh Khaldun said Wednesday. The number of outbreaks associated with religious gatherings has "significantly increased since September."

The outbreaks came as Michigan experienced a record week of 10,241 confirmed cases of the virus for the week ending Oct. 17 and set a seven-day average for daily new cases at 1,463. The previous highest seven-day average was 1,395 cases for April 5-11, when there were a total of 9,768 confirmed cases.

"In these incredibly challenging times, it is critical that people have social supports, and I know that being part of a faith-based community can be an important part of that," Khaldun said.

The state defines an outbreak as two or more cases "with a link by place and time indicating a shared exposure outside of a household." 

"But we have to remember that this virus is still very active, and it's always looking to infect people no matter the reason for the gathering," Khaldun said. 

When asked at Wednesday's press conference whether the increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths could result in another stay-home order, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she was hesitant to address the question and create anxiety.

"That’s why we are sounding the alarm bell now," Whitmer said. "These numbers are moving in the wrong direction. We are at a dangerous moment.”

But the governor argued a turnaround in numbers was possible. 

"We’ve shown we can do this," she said. "We have done it before.”

Whitmer brought two religious leaders to the podium to preach about the effectiveness of social distancing, mask use or virtual services.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services did not have additional information about what types of religious services were involved in the outbreaks.

But the department's spokeswoman, Lynn Sutfin, pointed to at least one large outbreak at a religious campus in Kalamazoo County. 

In that case, more than 50 cases across four counties have been identified since early October at Radiant Church, the Radiant School of Worship and the Radiant School of Ministry. 

On its website, the church noted Thursday that it had suspended weekend services Oct. 10 and 11 and 17 and 18 after several staff members had either tested positive for the virus or were displaying symptoms consistent with the virus.

The church plans to reopen its campuses Saturday and Sunday after a full 14-day quarantine, but it asked those feeling unwell or exposed to COVID to stay home.

"We will continue to thoroughly clean and disinfect all potentially exposed areas of our campuses and follow the Kalamazoo County Health Department approved protocols to provide our church with a safe and healthy environment," the church wrote. 

The Archdiocese of Detroit is not aware of any outbreaks associated with masses or parish events, said Holly Fournier, spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

The archdiocese resumed public masses in May after a more than 2-month suspension, but the reopening came with various safety measures in place such as mask usage, extra cleaning and sanitizing, physical distancing and capacity capped at 50%. 

Parishioners are dispensed from the "grave obligation" of attending Sunday masses until Nov. 23. 

Since then, "we‘ve been alerted to isolated cases, but because of our safety protocols those have not led to outbreaks," Fournier said. 

Whitmer's stay-home orders in the spring included exemptions from penalties for religious services.

The health department's epidemic orders, which have largely taken the place of Whitmer's executive orders that were nullified by the Michigan Supreme Court, also include a similar exemption: "Neither a place of religious worship nor its owner is subject to penalty under this order for allowing religious worship at such place. No individual is subject to penalty under this order for engaging in religious worship at a place of religious worship.”

Whitmer spent much of the press conference urging people to buckle down on simple measures like mask use, social distancing and gathering limitations to curb a second wave of virus cases in Michigan.

Cases, hospitalization on rise

Michigan reported 150,989 confirmed cases and 7,086 deaths linked to the virus as of Wednesday, the same day the state reported 1,064 adult hospitalizations related to the virus. 

The number of hospitalizations marked an 89% increase from the 564 hospitalizations reported a month earlier. 

As of Saturday, 109,539 people are considered recovered because they are still alive more than 30 days after the onset of the illness.

Khaldun, who warned last week the state could be at "beginning of a second wave," said Wednesday the state is at a "critical moment" in its fight with COVID-19. She has argued the increase is due to social events, reopened schools and open businesses, especially as more activities move inside because of the colder weather. 

As of Tuesday, the case rate is at 131 new cases per million per day, an 80% increase from the case rate a month ago. 

More than 35,000 tests are being administered on average each day, but the percent positive rate has increased to 4.9%, an indication of community spread, Khaldun said. 

Case incidence is highest in the Upper Peninsula, which is experiencing 337 new cases per million people per day and a 9.3% positivity rate. Close behind the U.P. are the Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids regions. 

Across the state, 8% of hospitalizations are linked to COVID-19, Khaldun said. Deaths also have increased from an average of nine per day a month ago to an average of 15 per day as of this past Sunday.

"These are challenging times and the virus is spreading, but we really should not feel helpless," Khaldun said. "We have what it takes to get control of this virus and we've done it before."