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14 COVID-19 cases tied to Prineville church; pastor says some don’t wear masks

Crook County official says it's largest church-connected outbreak to date

PRINEVILLE, Ore. (KTVZ) -- The Crook County Health Department confirmed Monday it's currently investigating 14 cases of COVID-19 associated with the New Life Bible Chapel in Prineville.

And while the county has dealt with other church outbreaks since December, Health Department Public Information Officer Vicky Ryan said this is the largest to date.

Ryan told NewsChannel 21, "Our communicable disease team is addressing concerns about the environment and practices. They are also doing their case investigation and working with everyone affected."

"We will continue to remind everyone that COVID is still here and that it will continue to spread if we are not diligent in our precautions to protect ourselves and others," she said. "It is vital that community-based organizations take these steps to protect the public of all ages."

"What's been difficult for Crook County is that we spent so many months not having cases, we were way behind where everybody else in the state was," Ryan said. "And once we caught up, we caught up with a vengeance, and our cases pretty much exploded."

Ryan said the sustained low case count had more residents overlooking safety measures.

"We had a lot of people who were relaxing with the guidance, and a lot of businesses relaxing," she said.

And Ryan says the small, rural community has some residents who still don't know anyone affected by the virus.

"With this community, it's been difficult, because we do have a lot of skepticism around the pandemic, " she said. "And unless you know somebody who knows somebody who has come down with the virus and has been sick with it, it's hard to kind of wrap your head around the fact that it's real."

Pastor Ron Hemphill spoke with NewsChannel 21 by phone, and denied that any COVID-19 cases were tied directly to the church.

"There are a lot of COVID cases inside Prineville, some of those people do go to church here. As far as an outbreak in the church, that's incorrect," Hemphill said.

The pastor also said that his church has scaled back their activities.

"Our services are really scaled back, for the most part," Hemphill said. "We are doing the streaming, streaming services. We have a limited number of people because of that."

"Pastor Ron" said he doesn't wear a mask, because people can't hear him well when he does.

When asked whether his parishioners wearing masks, Hemphill said,
"Some do, some do not. If they are, you know, on oxygen or something like that, what are you going to do?"

But he said as of now, the church isn't engaging in handshakes or elbow bumps.

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Blake Allen

Blake Allen is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Blake here.


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