In his first interview since Westmore Church of God became the focus of a regional outbreak of COVID-19, the church's lead pastor Kelvin Page said the church should have taken masks more seriously as a precaution and that the church is no longer tracking the number of confirmed cases in the congregation.
During an interview with Mix 104.1 WCLE in Cleveland on Thursday, Page said his church followed strong standards to keep people safe, including seat spacing and encouraging social distancing, but the virus began spreading in the congregation around June 21.
"It slipped in on us," Page said. "It came in through the music ministry. It's nobody's fault. In fact that morning, as we did every week, temperatures were taken before choir members would go to the stage, and somehow it slipped in on us. I have to take responsibility for that."
Westmore had held in-person services for weeks before the outbreak began. On June 22, Westmore hosted a regional worship service for the Tennessee Church of God state office, part of a monthlong tour of Church of God congregations in Tennessee by church officials. Several hundred people, from across Southeast Tennessee, attended the three-hour, indoor event.
Between June 24 and 26, Page announced on Facebook there were first one, then five and then 12 confirmed cases in the congregation. On June 26, he announced he was shutting down in-person services. People connected with the church feared the number of cases was multiples of what had been reported, and church leadership said little publicly for weeks.
During Thursday's interview, Page said maintaining an exact count of sick people in the church is complicated since some believe they got the virus at another location or tested positive for influenza but not COVID-19.
"I do not know the exact number," he told the radio station. "I don't even know. I wouldn't even know within a range. I do know that it is way too many. And we've got to live and learn from it. And so we gave up on keeping a count.
"I do regret that I can't give you an exact number," he added. "I would want to own that. We do know that it hit us hard and that it was way too many people."
Watching people in his church fight the virus has been difficult, Page said, adding that he and his mother-in-law were infected.
"We're blessed," he said. "For most of our people, it's been like a flu epidemic. I'm not downplaying that. I do want to alleviate a lot of fear, I think, as having it myself, or excuse me - as have had it.
"It's been just like the flu I remember having," he said. "And I would say that there's frankly a part of me that's kind of glad it's over on some level. There's this sense of relief that it wasn't a death sentence for me, and I don't think it is for a lot of people, but I don't want to downplay that. I would be concerned, and I don't blame people for that."
The pastor said he wished he had put more emphasis on masks for the congregation.
"The thing that I would have done differently is really stress that," he said.
The pastor said the church will be online-only through at least July 19. Church leaders will evaluate whether to return to the building after that, he said. The church has bought thousands of masks in the past week, Page said.
Page said the Chattanooga media has not given his church credit for all the precautions taken by Westmore when it reopened.
"We continued to do our best to abide by those standards that had been set up," he said. "People were able to walk from their car to a seat without even having to touch a door. We didn't pass offering pouches. We really did everything except insist on people wearing masks, to be honest with you. We encouraged masks, and some of our people did wear masks. We had separate areas for people that felt vulnerable, that they could go to. But outside of the pushing the mask, we felt that we had really done our due diligence.
"We were not being casual," he said. "We had strong standards in place, but we didn't take that serious enough to say, 'OK, let's elevate this to really say that [a] mask is something you've really got to take seriously. I think we didn't drive that home. We had people who heard us say that you can wear a mask, and don't feel uncomfortable, and take liberty, but we didn't drive that home. And I think that's that's going to be a real key in our upstart."
Page, as well as the church's general counselor, did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails seeking comment on stories previously reported by the Times Free Press. Leaders from the Tennessee Church of God state office also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.