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Humboldt County has hit a rough patch in efforts to control COVID-19: A church “superspreader event” has coincided with the discovery of a variant and a dropoff in vaccination rates.

Still, the county’s health officials says it’s unlikely it will be forced to revert to a more restrictive tier of COVID regulations.

During a news briefing Wednesday, Humboldt County Public Health Officer Dr. Ian Hoffman attributed the spike in local cases, in part, to an event this month at Eureka the Pentecostal Church.

“We have now over 40 cases that were linked to that specific event and dozens more that have come from the interactions of people from that event with others in our community,” Hoffman said.

According to public health spokesperson Meriah Miracle, 10 people infected by the church event were hospitalized and 10 others visited the emergency room but were not admitted.

A public statement last week from the leaders of the Eureka church said that they did not know whether the outbreak was related to a service or “from outside gatherings amongst church congregants, many who are family.”

The church shut down all its public gatherings and set up testing for its members.

In other news from the county’s public health agency:

• The first case in Humboldt County of the B.1.1.7. variant was announced this week. Hoffman said he suspects that there are “many more” because of the variant’s rapid spread.

The one identified case was not associated with a large event or travel, he said. “We suspect that this has been circulating in our community for probably at least the last month, if not longer,” he added.

• Since the beginning of April, vaccine clinics have seen a large decline in traffic. “We are having a huge slump in people getting vaccinated,” said Lindsey Mendez, a member of the county’s Vaccine Task Force. Mendez attributed declining vaccination rates to the “adjustment period” following the shift to the state’s vaccine sign-up form, My Turn.

Latest figures show 28% of eligible Humboldt County residents are fully vaccinated and 44% have had at least one dose. Those are close to the percentages for the state as a whole.

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Hoffman acknowledged the community’s fear that this most recent superspreader event could force the county back into a more restrictive tier but said, “I don’t think it’s likely at this time.”

Humboldt County has been in the orange tier — “moderate” risk — since April 6.

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Fire at Cairo Coptic church kills 41, including 10 children


CAIRO (AP) — A fire ripped through a packed Coptic Orthodox church during morning services in Egypt’s capital on Sunday, quickly filling it with thick black smoke and killing 41 worshippers, including at least 10 children.

Several trapped congregants jumped from upper floors of the Martyr Abu Sefein church to try to escape the intense flames, witnesses said. “Suffocation, suffocation, all of them dead,” said a distraught witness, who only gave a partial name, Abu Bishoy.

Sixteen people were injured, including four policemen involved in the rescue effort.

The cause of the blaze at the church in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba was not immediately known. An initial investigation pointed to an electrical short-circuit, according to a police statement.

Weeping families waited outside for word on relatives still inside the church and at nearby hospitals where the victims were taken. Footage from the scene circulated online showed burned furniture, including wooden tables and chairs. Firefighters were seen putting out the blaze while others carried victims to ambulances.

Witnesses said there were many children inside the four-story building when the fire broke out.

“There are children, we didn’t know how to get to them,” said Abu Bishoy. “And we don’t know whose son this is, or whose daughter that is. Is this possible?”

A hospital document obtained by The Associated Press said the Imbaba public hospital received 20 bodies, including 10 children. Three were siblings, twins aged 5 and a 3-year-old, it said. The church bishop, Abdul Masih Bakhit, was also among the dead at the hospital morgue.

Twenty-one bodies were taken to other hospitals. It was not immediately known if children were among them.

Mousa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church, told the AP that 5-year-old triplets, their mother, grandmother and an aunt were among those killed. He said funerals for the dead would take place at two churches in the nearby Waraq neighborhood.

Witness Emad Hanna said the church includes two places used as a day care and that a church worker managed to get some children out.

“We went upstairs and found people dead. And we started to see from outside that the smoke was getting bigger, and people want to jump from the upper floor,” Hanna said.

“We found the children,” some dead, some alive, he said.

The country’s health minister blamed the smoke and a stampede as people attempted to flee the fire for causing the fatalities. It was one of the worst fire tragedies in Egypt in recent years.

The church is located in a narrow street in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Cairo. Sunday is the first working day of the week, and traffic jams clog the streets in Imbama and surrounding areas in the morning.

Some relatives criticized what they said were delays in the arrival of ambulance and firefighters. “They came after people died … They came after the church burned down,” shouted one woman standing outside the smoldering church.

Health Minister Khaled Abdel-Ghafar countered that the first ambulance arrived at the site two minutes after the fire was reported.

Fifteen firefighting vehicles were dispatched to the scene to put out the flames while ambulances ferried casualties to nearby hospitals, officials said.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi spoke by phone with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II to offer his condolences, the president’s office said. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, and other government officials also offered condolences to the head of the Coptic church.

“I am closely following the developments of the tragic accident,” el-Sissi wrote on Facebook. “I directed all concerned state agencies and institutions to take all necessary measures, and immediately to deal with this accident and its effects.”

Abdel-Ghafar, the health minister, said in a statement that two of the injured were discharged from a hospital while the others were still being treated.

The Interior Ministry said it received a report of the fire at 9 a.m. local time, and first responders found that the blaze had broken out in an air conditioner on the building’s second floor.

The ministry, which oversees police and firefighters, blamed an electrical short-circuit for the fire, which produced huge amounts of smoke. Meanwhile, the country’s chief prosecutor, Hamada el-Sawy, ordered an investigation and a team of prosecutors were dispatched to the church. He said most victims died of smoke inhalation.

Later Sunday, emergency services said they managed to put out the blaze and the prime minister and other senior government officials arrived to inspect the site. Premier Mustafa Madbouly said surviving victims and families of the dead would receive payments as compensation and that the government would rebuild the church.

Egypt’s Christians account for some 10% of the nation’s more than 103 million people and have long complained of discrimination by the nation’s Muslim majority.

Sunday’s blaze was one of the worst fire tragedies in recent years in Egypt, where safety standards and fire regulations are poorly enforced. In March last year, a fire at a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people and injured 24 more.

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