A Greenbrier County pastor is speaking out for the first time after an outbreak of COVID-19 among his congregation and says “mistakes” were made but the church is moving forward by adhering more strictly to health department guidelines.
In an exclusive interview with The Register-Herald on Monday, Pastor Youel Altizer, who has been preaching at the Graystone Baptist Church in Ronceverte for more than 30 years, said although he had urged church members to practice social distancing and wear masks, some isolated incidents such as handshaking did occur. Some members wore masks, but not all members did, he said.
“We urged people to wear masks, but it was not mandatory,” Altizer said in a phone interview. "We tried to do our best to follow the health department guidelines, but we made a few mistakes and as far as the masks go, we slacked up on that. We could have done better.
“We had stopped the fellowship and handshaking portions of our church services, but some members were doing it on their own, but not all the members were.”
County health officials say there are 28 positive cases of COVID-19 related to the church outbreak. More tests and contact tracing data are pending. The church was first notified that the virus was present on June 11.
Altizer said his personal test results came back negative and he was being retested this week.
Altizer said he spoke with Greenbrier County Health Department Health Officer Dr. Bridget Morrison after the outbreak occurred, and the church would be following guidelines in a stricter fashion.
“After talking to the doctor, she said the chances of getting the virus really drops and goes down when people are wearing masks,” Altizer said. “We are going to be stronger on our face masks. I will try and persuade the congregation to wear masks.”
Morrison said Monday that an exact count of how many people were exposed and caught the virus is difficult to pinpoint. Not everyone at recent services lives in Greenbrier County. She urged those exposed to get tested with their primary care provider, Med Express, Rainelle Medical Center, the Robert C. Byrd Clinic or to “call the health department.”
“Some people went to the mass testing site and others have gone to their primary care providers,” Morrison said. “There are some travelers that we know of. Until we get a hold of them, we don’t really know for sure. We recommend wearing a mask and the guidelines recommend public usage of masks at all times.”
Altizer said masks would be made available to those who do not have one and that hand sanitizer has always been available.
Altizer said full Sunday night services and Sunday school services have happened since Mother’s Day, but the first Sunday morning service took place May 31.
He believes the virus was transmitted among congregation members at some point during that time period.
One member, with underlying respiratory issues, has been hospitalized, Altizer said.
“This was a miiddle-aged man with a lung problem, but he was wearing a mask during the services,” Altizer said.
Altizer said this has been a learning experience and church services will not be held “at least for another two weeks.” Online streaming church services are possible, with only Altizer and one other present in the church.
“It depends on the health conditions of our congregation as to how we move forward,” Altizer said.
With an entire membership of up to 125 people, Altizer said approximately 50 to 60 people were attending the night services and up to 100 people may have been present during the May 31 Sunday morning services.
“It happened and I hate that it happened at Graystone Baptist Church, but the bottom line is this is the attack of the devil on my church,” Altizer said. “There is no doubt in my mind that this is the work of the devil."