Orangeburg County church pauses in-person services after congregant tests positive for COVID-19

Updated: May. 27, 2020 at 7:57 PM EDT
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NORTH, S.C. (WIS) - A church in Orangeburg County is preaching a new message: get tested.

First Baptist Church in North is halting in-person services for the month of June after a congregant tested positive two days after going to a Sunday morning service.

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Senior Pastor Sean McElrath said the individual was not symptomatic but learned they had tested positive on May 26 after going to church on May 24.

"It's extremely alarming, but unfortunately as things begin to open, this is going to be a reality. We probably won't be the only church that has to step back and revisit how we re-open," McElrath said.

He said the church has reached out to the roughly 40 people who attended the service, encouraging them to get tested for COVID-19 and self-isolate.

McElrath said the church had been running in-person services for roughly three weeks after church leadership decided to open the building back up.

"It seemed like these numbers were declining, if we did put together some guidelines, we could safety re-gather for worship," he said.

As of the afternoon of May 27, Orangeburg County has 160 cases with three deaths.

McElrath said the church followed CDC guidelines, required social distancing, encouraged thorough hand washing, and told the vulnerable members of the community to stay home.

"I think we did everything that we could, and this was certainly something that was outside of our hands," he said.

McElrath said the church is not aware of any other positive cases of COVID-19 from that service.

WIS reached out to the South Carolina Baptist Convention about church re-openings and asked about statewide guidance. It sent the following responses to WIS:

  1. We gave guidance on principles but left the specific decisions on dates up to the autonomous local church leadership.  We did not advise any specific dates for re-gathering.
  2. We understand that we are all living with a certain amount of risk. We are encouraging our churches to calculate those risks and take the necessary precautions before they re-gather.
  3. Our message to churches is to be prayerful and wise in balancing the safety of people and their Christian witness to their community.

The convention website features various resources for churches transitioning back to in-person services, including guidance on cleaning teams, altering service times, and maintaining an online presence.

On the 27th, Family Health Centers Inc. ran a mobile testing site near North's town hall.

Two nurses dressed in full personal protective equipment served roughly a dozen cars at any given time.

Centers CEO Leon Brunson, Sr. said church goers should think twice about gathering.

"You have to think about how it's spread, once it comes into the community, it spreads very fast," he said.

Despite the challenges, McElrath said it's all part of a divine plan.

"God is working all things together for the good of his people, even this virus. We wait expectantly what good he is working through the situation, we know he'll reveal those things in the days ahead," he said.

McElrath said he expects church leadership to revisit the issue of re-opening the church in July.

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