Washington Church Holds Choir Practice, Now 48 Members Have COVID-19, Two Are Dead

'This may help people realize that, hey, we really need to be careful,' said an infectious disease expert.

a church hymnal rests on a piano
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'This may help people realize that, hey, we really need to be careful,' said an infectious disease expert.

A Washington state church held choir practice days before the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic was fully understood, and now 4 dozen members are sick with COVID-19, 3 are hospitalized, and 2 are dead, The L.A. Times reports.

Back on March 6, the extent of the coronavirus pandemic seemed to most Washingtonians to be limited to the Seattle area, about an hour away from Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church. Adam Burdick, director of the Skagit Valley Chorale, sent an email to members saying that, though he was concerned about the virus, the scheduled March 10 choir practice would go on as usual.

“I’m planning on being there this Tuesday March 10, and hoping many of you will be, too,” he said.

That was 20 days ago. Now, of the 60 people who showed up for choir practice that night, all but 11 of them have contracted COVID-19, the respiratory illness that derives from the coronavirus.

Burdick says that the choir took standard precautions that night. Hand sanitizer was passed around, there were none of the typical handshakes and hugs that accompany choir practice. Members brought their own sheet music, and avoided touching the same things others had touched. Singers kept their distance from each other, though no one coughed, sneezed, or otherwise appeared sick.

Polly Dubbel, a county communicable disease and environmental health manager, says that this suggests that the choir members contracted the disease through airborne droplets in the air, from one or more people who already had the virus, but weren’t experiencing symptoms.

“That’s all we can think of right now,” Dubbel said.

illustration of a coronavirus
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That so many people got sick through a situation in which there was limited touching or sharing of items is a cause for concern for health officials, who have been operating under the belief that the coronavirus isn’t spread through aerosols — that is, particles smaller than 5 micrometers that can float in the air for minutes or longer. Previously, the conventional wisdom had been that the disease was spread through respiratory droplets — the result of a cough or a sneeze — once the ejected materials land on a surface.

“One could imagine that really trying to project your voice would also project more droplets and aerosols,” said Jamie Lloyd-Smith, a UCLA infectious disease researcher.

It’s a sentiment shared by Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech, who said that some people are particularly good at expelling fine material from their lungs, up to a thousand times more than others.

“This may help people realize that, hey, we really need to be careful,” she said.