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Dozens of COVID-19 cases linked to Christmas Eve gatherings at Woburn church

Genesis Community Church in Woburn.
Genesis Community Church in Woburn.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

A COVID-19 outbreak linked to Christmas Eve services at a church in Woburn has infected dozens of worshippers and public health officials fear the virus will become more widespread in other local communities, Mayor Scott Galvin said.

Galvin said the city’s Board of Health nurses have been working with the state to notify those affected by the outbreak at GENESIS Community Church and help them quarantine to prevent further transmission of the virus that has infected nearly 368,000 people statewide.

“It’s kind of a unique situation because the GENESIS church is located in Woburn, and probably 25 percent of churchgoers are from Woburn,” Galvin said in an interview Saturday. “It’s a regional type of church, so some of the people who are testing positive could be from different cities.”

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GENESIS, which last week announced 44 positive cases of the virus, is the latest church in Massachusetts to report a major outbreak of Covid-19. In November, more than 200 cases had been traced back to events at Crossroads Community Church in Fitchburg.

Elsewhere in New England, a wedding reception in rural East Millinocket, Maine, became a so-called “super spreader event” linked to 178 cases and at least 7 deaths. Churches and religious gatherings have become a major cause for concern for public health officials.

In light of the Christmas holiday, the capacity at houses of worship was reduced to 25 percent capacity, effective Dec. 26 for at least two weeks, from 40 percent, state officials announced last month.

The state Department of Public Health did not respond to multiple requests for comment over the weekend.

One epidemiologist said places of worship pose a higher risk for virus transmission because worshipers often stay in the same place during a service.

“If you spend enough time next to someone who might have the disease, and there is not the best ventilation in that area, you’re more likely to get exposed,” said Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center and associate professor of medicine at Boston University. “Compared to silent worship, singing or doing anything that generates more of that virus into the air poses a greater risk.”

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Unless there is good air circulation and a lot of space between people, indoor spaces tend to be 20 times more dangerous for virus transmission than outdoor ones, Bhadelia said.

“The transmission rates of COVID-19 in our communities have gone up,” she said. “So if you spend time indoors with a large group of people, the likelihood that one of them may be positive has also gone up.”

Michael Davis, lead pastor at GENESIS Community Church, said last week that 44 people who attended four services on Christmas Eve and the previous day have tested positive for COVID-19.

“Every individual who attended Christmas Eve at GENESIS has been contacted and made aware of the situation as well as being encouraged, whether symptomatic or not, to get tested for COVID-19,” according to a statement from GENESIS.

The services were held Dec. 23 and Dec. 24., with each seeing an attendance of about 105 people, or 35 percent of the church’s capacity, the statement said.

Galvin said GENESIS has been “very cooperative” since the outbreak. He added that the church has given those who are now quarantining $300 gift cards to assist them.

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“It’s an unfortunate situation, and we’re now trying to work to contain it and make sure we do the best we can as far as getting people the information they need for quarantining and isolating,” Galvin said.

To attend the Christmas Eve services at GENESIS, every person except for those on stage or leading worship was required to wear a mask while inside the building, according to the statement. Attendees also had to register in advance and stay 6 feet apart from those they did not arrive with.

The church said it had hand sanitizer available, and disinfected “high-touch surfaces” between the hour-long services.

GENESIS was established as an independent church in 2009 to spread the word of God and Jesus Christ in the Boston area, according to its website. The church’s services are now being held online, and GENESIS officials will continue to work with the Woburn Health Department, the statement said.

“We are deeply saddened to learn that people within GENESIS tested positive for COVID-19 and we are doing all we can to make sure this does not spread any further,” the statement said.

Woburn has reported 2,642 COVID-19 cases and 38 deaths since March. According to city testing data, 124 new cases were confirmed in Woburn between Dec. 27 and Dec. 31, with 68 reported on Dec. 28 — the highest single-day rise in cases the city has seen this fall or winter.

Officials have not identified any other outbreaks in Woburn that are related to recent holiday or church gatherings, Galvin said.

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“Cities and towns across the state are under siege by the virus. It’s spreading more rapidly and people need to keep their guard up,” Galvin said. “We’re doing what we can until the vaccine becomes readily available, and that’s what we’re looking forward to — better days ahead.”

Caroline Enos can be reached at caroline.enos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineEnos.