Health officials in Northern California’s Humboldt County are attributing a recent spike in coronavirus cases to mass gatherings in the area, including one outbreak linked to a Pentecostal church.

“After seeing the case rate decline for weeks, Humboldt County is currently experiencing an uptick in cases, many of which are related to one or more super-spreader events,” county officials said in a statement.

Over the last two weeks, the county reported more than 260 new cases of the novel coronavirus — a 160% increase from the previous two-week period. Nineteen people have been hospitalized, said Humboldt County public health spokeswoman Meriah Miracle.

The county has had fewer than 3,900 COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic.

One outbreak was identified at Eureka the Pentecostal Church, located near the western end of the county. Church officials confirmed the outbreak on their website.

“Unfortunately, some of our church members have tested positive for COVID,” they said. “We had gone over an entire year with no outbreak at the church, but despite our best efforts, the virus was introduced to our congregation.”

It is not clear whether the spread came from a church service or from outside gatherings among members, the statement said. Representatives for Eureka the Pentecostal Church did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

After learning of the outbreak, church officials shut down all of their facilities and worked with the county’s public health response team to set up a coronavirus testing site in the church parking lot. The county’s health officer, Dr. Ian Hoffman, thanked them for their responsiveness.

“We’re grateful for all they’re doing to protect each other and the community as a whole,” he said in a statement.

Humboldt is currently in the orange, or moderate, tier of the state’s color-coded reopening system, which allows in-person religious gatherings at 50% capacity.

The space at Eureka the Pentecostal Church can host up to 850 people, according to its website. The church had been offering livestreamed services for congregants who do not wish to attend in person.

But an event held by a larger church network could have contributed to the spread, officials said.

As first reported by the Lost Coast Outpost, on April 9 and 10 some members of Eureka the Pentecostal Church attended a regional gathering in Stockton held by the Western District Youth division of the United Pentecostal Church International organization. Videos posted by the group showed hundreds of attendees, some without masks, singing and dancing in an indoor venue.

An event listing for the gathering stated that safety protocols, such as temperature checks and social distancing, would be followed but said masks could be removed when seated. Capacity for the event was “limited to 1,200 people,” the listing said. Officials with the organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The uptick in cases in Humboldt County arrives as vaccination rates in the community are slowing. Officials last week said they turned down 1,000 additional doses of the Moderna vaccine and noted that “thousands of appointments” are currently available.

“This is the first week the county turned away doses offered by the state due to a lack of demand from the community and providers,” the county said.

During a news briefing Wednesday, Hoffman said Humboldt County is working to “break down barriers to the vaccine,” including those related to jobs, transportation and technology.

“We’re at a point where certainly the people who were well-connected to information in society knew how to get the vaccine, and have now gotten it,” he said. “Now we’re having to get out to people who didn’t have as much access in the past. So we’re going to keep vaccinating as long as people are there to show up for clinics.”

About 43% of the county’s eligible residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to county data, compared with about 46% statewide.

Despite the outbreak, Hoffman said Humboldt will not be reverting back to a more restrictive tier of the state’s color-coded reopening system in the near future.

“I know there’s a lot of concern for this particular event potentially moving us into a more restrictive tier. I don’t think that’s likely at this time,” he said, adding that the chance of seeing “the overwhelming kind of cases that we had seen nationally, internationally and even here locally in southern parts of the state of California is very unlikely at this point.”

Humboldt County this week also confirmed its first case of the B.1.1.7 variant, often referred to as the U.K. variant.

Public health investigators determined that the variant was not associated with travel, the county said, “which indicates it was most likely contracted through community spread.”

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