In a rare move, the Hawaii Department of Health called out a Maui church by name on Wednesday to alert its congregants about an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak that originated there more than three weeks ago.

Religious gatherings at King’s Cathedral in Kahului have been associated with 50 COVID-19 infections among people aged 10 to 77, the first of whom was confirmed to be ill on March 7.

The number of infections associated with the church’s gatherings has doubled in the last 10 days, according to DOH officials.

“DOH does not disclose specific cluster locations unless there is an imminent risk to public health,” acting State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said in a press release. “Based on the findings of our investigative team, we believe disclosure is warranted to prevent further transmission of the disease.”

A COVID-19 cluster at King’s Cathedral in Kahului, shown in a picture from its website, is associated with 50 cases. Screenshot:

The health department, at a March 10 meeting, first urged the church to stop all in-person events. State officials discussed containment measures and recommended the church switch to holding virtual services.

Yet state investigators found the church continued in-person services and a youth conference and other gatherings, all of which DOH officials believe contributed to virus transmission.

The church was founded in 1980 and is led by pastors James and Colleen Marocco. The church is affiliated with 365 campuses worldwide and aims to have 500 congregations by May, according to its website.

In an email Wednesday afternoon to Civil Beat, King’s Cathedral Pastor Alex Betsill said the church canceled its Easter egg hunt in response to the DOH’s concerns but still plans to hold Easter Sunday morning services in person — with congregants distanced among the pews and wearing masks.

The church called itself an “essential institution” and said worshippers also will have the option of attending drive-in or online services. The church also postponed an Easter play production until April 25 and 26.

This Maui cluster was cited last week in the health department’s weekly report, which found that people who had contracted it at the church had passed it on to coworkers and household members — sparking new clusters at an unnamed middle school and hotel.

DOH encouraged anyone who attended events hosted by King’s Cathedral and Chapels in the past two weeks to get tested for COVID-19 and monitor themselves for symptoms like fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat or loss of taste or smell.  If symptoms develop, they were advised to self-quarantine and consult a doctor.

A screen shot from King’s Cathedral’s Instagram page documented a concert in mid-March, after the first COVID-19 case was identified. Screenshot: King's Cathedral

Health officials said they are concerned the virus will continue to spread across the community if action is not taken.

COVID-19 cases are on the rise on Maui and Oahu. Maui recorded an average of 28 new cases daily last week, and approximately 3.5% of COVID-19 tests came back positive. Oahu saw an average of 58 cases daily last week and 2.2% of tests were positive.

In an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight program on Wednesday, DOH Director Dr. Libby Char said Oahu may fall back into Tier 2 of its reopening plan if case counts continue at their current trajectory. She urged people to avoid large gatherings, especially as the Easter holiday weekend approaches.

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is picking up speed as more doses arrive from mainland manufacturers, but social distancing and mask-wearing are more important than ever to prevent surges, she said.

In addition to the various hospitals and clinics that are administering shots, about 50 pharmacies statewide will provide vaccines to those eligible to get them. Those pharmacies will receive as many as 40,000 vaccine doses directly from the federal government this week, and Char said she expects appointments at locations such as CVS or Safeway to pick up soon.

“That should really help to facilitate people to be able to go to their neighborhood stores and make it more accessible,” she said.

The state health department is also giving more autonomy to neighbor island officials to dole out vaccines at their own pace.

Health directors on neighbor islands will be at liberty to decide when to expand their vaccine eligibility pools, she said. Lanai and Molokai have made progress more quickly than other islands, in part due to their smaller populations.

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