AUTHORITIES say they have traced COVID-19 infections in France to the country’s second largest evangelical church, run by Samuel Peterschmitt, above, who is recovering from the virus.
A sorrowful and visibly weakened Peterschmitt, of La Porte Ouverte Chrétienne (Christian Open Door) church in Mulhouse, was close to tears when he recorded a video last month after he left hospital (report in French.)
Addressed to “to all our families in mourning”, the video message said:
We were among the first victims in France of this disease. I would like to tell you how much I love you. I cry with you. I have no more tears to cry, but as soon as this difficult period ends we will make a great worship of memory of all those who are left.
In a plea that should be heeded by idiotic American evangelical pastors who are defying lock-down orders he went on urge his followers to respect the social distancing measures introduced by the French authorities.
A kind of atomic bomb that went off in the town in late February that we didn’t see.
Someone in the crowd had the virus and kicked off what soon became one of Europe’s largest regional clusters of infections, which then quickly spread across the country and eventually overseas.
As of Wednesday, France reported 56,989 confirmed cases COVID-19, and the country’s death toll is the fourth highest in the world at 4,032. The actual number of fatalities may be higher, because public health authorities were initially not including deaths that occurred outside hospitals in the tally.
France’s health minister, Olivier Véran, is quoted as saying:
The tipping point was the evangelical gathering in Mulhouse. The epidemic spread across the country from the gathering.
When the five-day prayer meeting at the evangelical church began on February 17, France only had 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with none of those in Alsace, the region where Mulhouse is located.
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Alsace wasn’t diagnosed until February 29, according to Christophe Lannelongue, head of the Regional Health Agency in France’s Grand Est administrative region. The patient was a woman whose children had been at the church with their grandparents, though she did not attend it herself.
Lannelongue’s office did not realize what had happened — or the scale of the potential outbreak — until two days later, he told Radio France, which traced the connections from the Mulhouse church across the country.
On March 2, a man tested positive for COVID-19 in Nîmes, a city 388 miles south of Mulhouse, not far from France’s Mediterranean coast. When local authorities asked about his movements, he revealed that he had attended the prayer meeting in Mulhouse days before.
By the time authorities had a clearer picture of the extent of the transmission, containment was no longer possible. The Open Door became a case study in how quickly the COVID-19 can spread in an interconnected world.
Church representatives say they resent being blamed for the outbreak, given that the government had not yet recommended any health protocols at the time of the prayer meeting.
Said Nathalie Schnoebelen, a church spokesperson:
Contrary to what certain political leaders have said, we didn’t ignore basic rules of security, because at the time there were none yet.
A Strasbourg-based nurse who was in the audience was identified as the source of an outbreak among fellow nurses in local hospitals, infecting approximately 250 people, according to Lannelongue.
Three retirees from Corsica flew home after the gathering and contributed to an outbreak on the island. As of the latest count, authorities have confirmed 263 cases in Corsica and 21 deaths.
Mamadou Karambiri, a well-known pastor from Burkina Faso, was also at the Mulhouse gathering. When he and his wife flew home afterward, they became Burkina Faso’s first two confirmed cases. The West African nation has now reported 261 cases and 14 deaths.
With France now under a lockdown, which prohibits all but essential travel outside the home, a repeat of the Mulhouse scenario is unlikely. But on Wednesday, the French government repeated its message about the necessity of staying put in advance of upcoming religious holidays in April – Easter, Passover and Ramadan.