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Church reports 34 coronavirus cases among staff and members

A coronavirus outbreak at one church underscores the importance of social distancing for local congregations. First Assemblies of God Church in Greers Ferry, Ark., has reported 34 cases of the illness with an elderly volunteer already having died this week.

In a Facebook post, pastor Mark Palenske — who is recovering from the virus along with his wife, Dena — said the virus must not be underestimated.

“There was very little in my training for the ministry that covered the full measure of what our church family has dealt with in the past few weeks,” he said. “The intensity of this virus has been underestimated by so many, and I continue to ask that each of you take it very seriously. An act of wisdom and restraint on your part can be the blessing that preserves the health of someone else.”

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church cases coronavirus

Bill Barton, a greeter at the church, died Tuesday of complications from COVID-19.

In a separate post, Palenske said Dena had been transferred to the hospital for further treatment after suffering a “seizure of sorts.”

“This virus is highly contagious, and it is no respecter of persons,” he said. “It seemingly picks its victim at random, so it’s best to remain very vigilant in hygiene protocols to the very best of your abilities.”

Church deacon Donald Shipp told the “Arkansas Democrat Gazette” that 31 of those infected are on staff at or are members of First Assemblies. The other three include two evangelists who led a recent children’s ministry event and a child who was visiting. All 34 of those infected were present at the kid’s event.

“[The virus] clearly made its way through a special weekend of children’s ministry at our church,” Palenske said.

Palenske also shared a message of faith and hope with his Facebook followers, urging the church community to care for each other at this uncertain time. “Respect and compassion for the people around us must dominate our self-discipline,” he wrote. “Let’s keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.”

One of those affected has already died.  It is expected that dozens of other church members could begin showing symptoms of the virus this week as the entire congregation self-quarantines.

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William “Bill” Barton, a greeter at Greers Ferry First Assembly in Cleburne County, Arkansas, became first of the infected to die Tuesday. He was 91.

State and local government officials confirmed the 91-year-old died at 8 a.m. Tuesday at Conway Regional Medical Center, and was the second coronavirus fatality in the state, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. The first was a 59-year-old Sherwood man who had underlying health issues.

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Of the more than 200 coronavirus cases in Arkansas, officials revealed on Tuesday that 11 are children. Data from Johns Hopkins as of Wednesday morning showed that more than 55,000 people across the U.S. have been infected with the coronavirus and just over 800 have died. Global figures stood at nearly 440,000 infections and nearly 20,000 deaths.

Officials say the outbreak of the virus at Greers Ferry First Assembly of God is responsible for the spread of the disease in the relatively small Cleburne County, which has a population of 25,000. The county now has the second highest number of coronavirus cases in the state.

–Alan Goforth | Metro Voice

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