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DOH says King’s Cathedral cluster now at 55 cases

Easter egg hunt is canceled, but in-person services will continue

Senior Pastor James Marocco preaches in front of King’s Cathedral in Kahului in March 2020. After the state Department of Health warned of a cluster of about 55 cases connected to King’s Cathedral and Chapels, Marocco said Wednesday that the church would cancel its Easter egg hunt but continue to hold in-person services at all its Maui congregations. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photos

A large cluster of COVID-19 cases at King’s Cathedral and Chapels has grown to about 55 cases, prompting the state Department of Health to take the rare step of publicly warning of the “imminent risk” to the community.

“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 news release Wednesday. “Based on the findings of our investigative team, we believe disclosure is warranted to prevent further transmission of the disease.”

The department encouraged the church to cancel all upcoming in-person events and conduct only virtual services until the cluster is contained. Church officials said Wednesday that they would cancel an Easter production and the Easter egg hunt they’ve hosted for 37 years but planned to continue holding in-person services at all Maui congregations.

“The church serves as a very important beacon of hope for our community in Hawaii,” Senior Pastor James Marocco told The Maui News on Wednesday evening. “We have people who come in desperate need of our services and need help, encouragement and strength. We’re not going to stop doing our duty. I recall when the hospital was having horrible situations with COVID, they didn’t shut the hospital down. They did whatever they could to limit the spread and that’s what we’ve done.”

King’s Cathedral and Chapels has 24 congregations across Maui County, including 19 on Maui, according to Marocco. He estimated that there are at least 3,000 people in church on a given Sunday across all Maui congregations. The large cathedral in Kahului can hold up to 3,000 people but “maxes out” at 1,000 with CDC guidelines on social distancing.

Cars line up in the King’s Cathedral parking lot for the church’s first drive-in worship service on March 22, 2020.

The church held its first drive-in service when the pandemic first began in March 2020 but later transitioned back to in-person services as the county allowed businesses and churches to reopen with restrictions. Some members attend in person, while some tune in from the parking lot and others watch via livestream online. Marocco said King’s Cathedral has services or programs almost every night.

The Health Department said it first identified the cluster at King’s Cathedral on March 7 and met with church representatives on March 10 to recommend containment measures including isolation, quarantine and a switch to virtual services, among other preventative measures.

However, the department said it later detected further transmission related to ongoing in-person services, a youth conference and other gatherings. The cluster has doubled in the past 10 days, the department said.

Those who have tested positive range in age from 10 to 77. COVID-19 transmission has spread from the church to a school and a workplace, and DOH said it is concerned more “spillover” cases will threaten the greater community and not just those affiliated with King’s Cathedral.

When asked why the church continued to have in-person gatherings after meeting with health officials, Marocco said, “it’s because of the nature of two things.”

“Number one, who we are as Americans and the freedom of religion guaranteed in our Constitution, and if there are people that want to gather to worship we want to be available to them,” he said, adding that the second reason is concern for “the number of people we minister to on a weekly basis.”

“It’s not that we ignored what they said, but we do have a higher authority, and the point is that the Bible says do not forsake the assembling together of yourselves, so we have to obey the Lord. That’s who we are,” Marocco said. “But we have not ignored the CDC guidelines. And we have done our part in limiting the spread by not mandating that every member has to attend.”

King’s Cathedral Administrator Kelly Davison, who attended the meeting with health officials on March 10, said there’s no way to prove the cluster originated from the church. He said that if he attended the church but also went to Walmart, “you can’t show that Walmart spread it to King’s Cathedral” or vice versa.

“The accusation that it’s spreading from King’s Cathedral to the community is a false statement,” he said. “There’s a relationship but you can’t prove that it goes from point A to point B, and that’s a very scary accusation.”

Both he and Marocco said they are worried about discrimination because of the department’s announcement, with some church members already being told by their employers to stay home and get tested before coming back to work.

“I would argue that you’re on the verge of violating HIPAA rules because you can’t give sensitive details as to where somebody works or somebody attends church, because it could lead to discrimination upon that organization,” Davison said.

He added that the cases attributed to the church are spread out across all the Maui congregations.

Kemble said Wednesday during Maui County’s news conference that officials aren’t sure if cases are limited to the Kahului location.

“We know membership is large,” she said. “It may not be limited to the Kahului congregation.”

State and county officials have in rare instances named locations of clusters, as they did with the Harbor Lights apartment complex on Maui and bars on Oahu.

“We felt it was important to put this out through media,” Kemble said. “Although we don’t typically talk about specific locations, in this case, given the rapid rise in cases that we’ve seen over the past 10 days, and we had an initial cluster detected in March which seemed initially to be dying down, but then we saw another uptick in cases, it’s important that we get word out about this so that people are aware and can take measures to protect themselves.”

People who attended events hosted by King’s Cathedral and Chapels in the past 14 days should get tested for COVID-19 and closely monitor themselves for symptoms including fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat or loss of taste or smell, the department said. If a person develops symptoms, they should self-quarantine and seek medical consultation.

The department added that anyone who feels ill, believes they may have been exposed or has attended a King’s Cathedral and Chapel function in the past two weeks can schedule a COVID-19 test by registering at www.minitmed.com/pre-register-maui-covid-19.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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