There have been at least four church-related outbreaks of COVID-19 across West Virginia since churches resumed in-person services on May 10.

State officials did not say a word for weeks about an early outbreak in a Marion County black church, which resulted in a pastors death, the first WV death of COVID-19, a black woman, and dozens of parishioners who caught the virus.

A Hampshire County church had nine cases earlier.

President Donald Trump had "ordered" all US churches to open, with no restrictions.

Gov. Jim Justice said the number of new cases ranged between five and eight per congregation, a total of 24 church members.

Justice said the outbreaks happened at locations where there wasn't adequate planning or social distancing.

Justice said, "But I’m just cautioning you to take heed and be a little more careful.”


May 12, 2020 - The silence about a WV black church was devastating.

Under-reported in WV, certainly by officials and then the media, was the absolute chaos at a black community church in Marion County struggling to get tested for COVID-19, the virus sweeping through the congregation with death and despair.

One by one, members of the congregations who attended a celebration got sick, went to the hospital and two died.

Among them was 88-year-old Viola York Horton, the first in West Virginia claimed by the virus. Rick Hood, an associate minister at Friendship Baptist Church also died after contracting the virus. He was 62.

As church members saw each other getting sick, they knew there was a problem.

More than 50% of Marion County's cases at one point were in the black community. The county is 3% black.

Some were turned away at testing sites for not meeting certain criteria laid out by the CDC. Some couldn't get referrals from a physician because they didn't have one. Problems also arose figuring out if they'd need to pay for the physician visits.

Scarce testing availability didn't help.

They turned to state lawmakers and the Marion County Health Department early in the outbreak looking for help tracking down everyone who was at the church service.

"The testing criteria, probably in my opinion, could've been and should've been relaxed," said Marion County Health Department administrator Lloyd White.

"However, to do that would not have accomplished a lot of goals, because one, we didn't have a lot of test kits, two, we didn't have the capacity to run the tests themselves. I think as those capacities increase, we will, and perhaps we should see additional testing guidelines come down the pipe."

Members of North Central West Virginia's black community feel they've been left out of the state's response to the coronavirus.

"This disease has just come like a massacre. It's a mass massacre," said Del. Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia. "Why is there not an exception for the black and brown communities to get tested? Why do we not have pop-up testing sites in the black and brown communities?”

"This is a public health crisis," Walker said. “The vulnerable population isn’t just our elderly. It’s the black and brown community. It’s someone who has a compromised immune system. Yet these folks aren’t even being brought into the conversation. That is malice, that is neglect, and that is discrimination.”

The state's Coronavirus Czar Dr. Clay Marsh has now identified the African American community as a vulnerable population, while DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said the state has now formed an African American coronavirus advisory task force. It hasn't been said who will be part of that group.

As for the church members, when their testing was finally approved, many of them couldn't make the long journey to Bridgeport for testing. Most are elderly.

Their community hospital, Fairmont Regional Medical Center, closed weeks before the pandemic hit West Virginia.

"When we lift this community up, we are actually lifting up the state, the local area, and the country as well. When you have the ability to have diversity at the table and you're directly speaking to the folks who know their cultures, you have the ability to affect change in a larger and greater way," said parishioner Hodges.