A large and influential Russian language church near Sacramento, California, is denying it is at the center of a novel coronavirus outbreak.
In an interview with a Sacramento television station on Thursday, Sacramento County Department of Health Services director Dr. Peter Beilenson confirmed at least 70 people at the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church were infected with Covid-19.
He said he named the church "not to cast aspersions on anybody but to really hammer home the importance of not congregating, not only in church but also in prayer gatherings in people's homes." It is one of the largest outbreak clusters of the virus in the US.
In an archived version of last Sunday's online service, a pastor announced at least three members of the church were infected with Covid-19.
However, the church released a statement Friday saying media reports about the Covid-19 outbreak were "inaccurate and falsely place emphasis on this church." The church also said it hadn't been informed any of its parishioners had died as reported by a local newspaper.
Beilenson told the Sacramento Bee Thursday that church leaders had "basically told us to leave them alone," adding "this is extremely irresponsible and dangerous for the community."
Health Department spokeswoman Janna Haynes told CNN officials they believe the virus is being spread during Bible study and fellowship meetings in small groups at congregants' homes. Haynes says the department is very concerned about the upcoming holidays of Palm Sunday and Easter, when church members and their families traditionally get together to celebrate, and they are deploying translators to plead with the Russian speaking community to stay home.
In its statement, the church said it had complied with all federal, state and local guidelines and regulations by closing its doors on March 18 and directing members to remain at home.
"The church did not rebuff or decline communications from the health officials as reported," according to the statement.
The statement said church leaders hadn't "at any time respond (ed) 'leave us alone'" and disputed church members had continued to gather in people's homes.
In response to the church's statement, the health department released a statement Friday that said health officials had spoken to members of the church and community during their contact tracing investigation, and those interviews revealed links between the cases linked to the church.
"While we know that the church as a whole has ceased to meet and the leadership is hosting online services, we have been told by multiple sources that there are groups that continue to meet in homes, despite the public health order to not gather with anyone outside of household members," the health department statement said. "These gatherings have been directly linked to the clusters of cases in the community.
The statement said the department's only goal is make sure people comply with the public health order not to gather to prevent the spread of the virus. The statement also noted that "in no way does Sacramento County condone ridicule, hatred or violence toward this church."
"It's a touchy subject. A lot of (people) believe they will be divinely protected, that God is stronger than the virus," said Vlad Kirgiz, the editor of The Evening Sacramento, a Russian language news blog.
Kirgiz said that despite dire warnings about the dangers of gatherings, there is a strong cultural tradition of not trusting the government.
Kirgiz told CNN that when he excerpted part of local newspaper story about the Covid-19 cluster, he "received a tsunami of negative comments blaming our news blog for participating in the attack on the church and even on our own community. We had to turn off comments to avoid the conflict and further emotional escalation within our community that already seems to be on the edge."