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Boise State Public Radio News is here to keep you current on the news surrounding COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Why Church Pews Can Be Petri Dishes During The Pandemic

Kyler Nixon


For some people of faith, gathering together is a central tenet of church. You bolster each other's beliefs, sing communally and feel the transcendence of the moment.

Churches were also among the first places to welcome people back as the Mountain West has reopened. But COVID-19 outbreaks at religious services across the country show that reopening churches can have dire consequences.

In Oregon, for example, the state's largest outbreak occurred among members of a church, infecting at least 236 people.

Churchgoers are more susceptible than groups like protesters because congregants are in an enclosed space. Initial science suggests that being inside significantly increases your chances of spreading the virus.

"If someone is what we call 'shedding virus' – like if they're expelling virus when they talk or cough or sneeze or breathe or whatever – that virus could linger in the air longer if you're in a confined space, especially if there's a high density of people in the room with you," said Katie Gostic, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Chicago who was not part of that research.

Then, there's singing.

"If you're projecting your voice and expelling viral particles, they might be going farther than they normally would and they also might be sort of mixing with the air in a way that lets them stay suspended and sort of pose a greater infection risk," Gostic said.

But Gostic said there’s a lot more research to do, though, including what she’s focused on now: figuring out how best to estimate how many people an infected person is expected to spread the virus to. In technical terms, that’s often called the reproductive number or “R-naught.”

“The golden rule of epidemiology is that when that number falls below 1 on average, infections aren’t replacing themselves, so the infection begins to shrink,” she said, adding that case numbers just aren't enough to predict that. “They are lagging indicators of whether the epidemic has actually started to grow, and we might not see it until weeks later that there’s an upsurge in transmission.”



Find reporter Madelyn Beck on Twitter @MadelynBeck8

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.