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COVID-19 cluster found in Culpeper Methodist musical group
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COVID-19 cluster found in Culpeper Methodist musical group

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Five members of Culpeper United Methodist Church have tested positive for COVID-19, its pastor tells the Star-Exponent.

All five people took part in a weekly worship-band practice last Wednesday evening, Sept. 23, in the church’s sanctuary, and it is believed that’s when a church member unwittingly transmitted the novel coronavirus to others, the Rev. John Hemming said in an interview.

Worship-band members, who include Hemming, gather weekly to sing hymns, with several practicing guitar, drums and organ or keyboard for the Sunday service. The group had begun meeting to practice about two months ago. Wednesday’s gathering numbered fewer than 10 people, by design, per COVID-19 advice from the Virginia Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control, the minister said.

About suppertime on Thursday, a church staff member—who is a member of the worship band—advised the church that a family member in their household had tested positive for COVID-19, said Kelly Weiss, the church’s executive director.

“We contacted everyone who was in Wednesday’s worship practice by phone that Thursday to inform them of possible exposure,” Weiss said via email. “We also sent out an email message to the entire congregation on Thursday informing them of this, and letting them know what safety measures we were taking.”

After learning the staff member was also positive, leaders followed up with an email Saturday to the entire congregation to let them know and to recommend a 14-day quarantine to anyone who may have been in contact with that person, Weiss said.

Church leaders canceled that Sunday’s in-person worship service, and have done the same for the Oct. 4 in-person service.

After more positive cases were reported on Sunday and Monday, leaders sent a third email to the whole congregation on Monday, informing them of the additional people who tested positive, he said.

Since then, a majority of the worship-band members have gotten tested, Hemming said.

Church leaders also alerted the conference of Virginia’s 1,100-plus Methodist churches, as well as the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District, which has been tracing worship-band members’ contacts, he said.

State health officials are getting in touch with people who’ve had close contact with those church members and are advising them to self-quarantine, Dr. Wade Kartchner, the health district’s director, said late Wednesday.

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When Virginia reopened businesses and institutions in Phase 3 of its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state Health Department advised churches to suspend their choirs as part of services, and to insist that parishioners wear masks and socially distance while inside a church building.

Culpeper Methodist, which resumed in-person services in early July, does not allow singing during Sunday worship, Hemming said. Music at in-person Sunday worship services had been instrumental-only, with keyboard or organ, or a recording, Hemming said.

Since the church received word of the first member’s COVID-19 diagnosis, the leadership’s communication with parishioners has been very open and transparent, he said.

During Sunday’s virtual worship service, beamed from his laptop and smartphone at home, Hemming told church members: “One of the things I wanted to let you know is that our congregation is certainly in need of prayer. On Thursday evening, we found that one of our staff members was diagnosed positive with COVID-19. That has caused all kinds of changes to take place, including worship today.”

He admitted that he hadn’t slept so well Saturday night, and planned to go get a COVID test the next day. Hemming urged parishioners to pray for one another.

On Monday, the lead pastor went to MedExpress to be tested, and later learned that he also was positive for the highly communicable disease, he said.

So far, the minister said Tuesday evening, church members’ symptoms have been mild. Hemming said he has a sore throat, body aches and slight headache.

“It’s been a wild time,” he said.

Hemming said he praises God that, so far, only five church members have been affected. “I am definitely praying for healing for all of them, and for the protection of others,” he said.

Hemming said he will continue to pray for his congregation and the Culpeper community.

What he and his parishioners are going through had made him realize “how quickly things can change,” he said.

Recent days’ experience has taught the pastor to “recognize how stealthily this virus works,” Hemming said. “All of this .... just kind of crept up on us unawares. It was a shock to all of us.”

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Clint Schemmer, a journalist since 1980, has worked at papers in California, North Carolina and Virginia. He’s been a bureau chief, editorial-page editor, copy desk chief and local news editor. Now a staff writer at the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

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