Health officials say 71 people infected with the novel coronavirus in California's Sacramento County are connected to a single church, making it one of the largest outbreak clusters in the United States.
But despite dozens falling ill, and one death, church leaders have rebuffed demands to halt gatherings, officials say.
The outbreak occurred at Bethany Slavic Missionary Church in Rancho Cordova, where members of the church and others associated with the congregation are confirmed to have been infected with the virus, Sacramento County health officials said. The church is a large and influential institution among the Northern California slavic community.
The head pastor, Reverend Adam Bondaruk, has also contracted the virus, according to associate Pastor Ivan Gavrilyuk.
Gavrilyuk told CNN that the church suspended services two weeks ago in accordance with health regulations. He would not confirm if the person who died from complications of the virus was a member of the congregation.
In a statement to CNN on Thursday night, the church said it believed in complying with government regulations.
Here's what they said:
“This church has complied with all applicable Covid-19 regulations immediately after they came into effect. The church closed its doors on March 18th. At this time, the Church remains closed. All services, departments, and activities are conducted solely online.” The statement did not address concerns that members were still gathering elsewhere.
Health officials want more help: County health officials said they are frustrated that the church leaders won’t work with the department to prevent further spread of the virus.
In an interview with the Sacramento Bee, Sacramento County Health Director Dr. Peter Beilenson said the church "basically told us to leave them alone.”
“This is extremely irresponsible and dangerous for the community,” he said.
The health department believes the virus is being spread during Bible study and fellowship meetings in small groups at congregants homes.
County health spokeswoman Janna Haynes said they are very concerned about the upcoming holidays of Palm Sunday and Easter -- when church members and their families traditionally get together to celebrate -- and is deploying translators to plead with the Russian-speaking community to stay home. Haynes said some of those they are attempting to reach don’t monitor mainstream news outlets and haven’t gotten the message about isolation.
In an interview Thursday night on the local Russian language radio station, Ethno FM, and translated for CNN, church Pastor Pavel Gurzhiy reportedly downplayed the seriousness of the situation.
“My estimation is that no less people are sick with the flu,” Gurzhiy said. “Seventy-one sick members against 5,000 is not too many to be honest with you.” The pastor said he knew of five people who had been infected with the virus.