Chattanooga priest confirmed as first Hamilton County coronavirus case

St. Paul's Episcopal Church is seen in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn., on Friday, March 13, 2020. / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

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The pastor of a large downtown Chattanooga church was declared the first case of COVID-19 in Hamilton County amid federal, state and local governments announcing a state of emergency due to the global pandemic.

Following the announcement of the first local case, the Episcopal Church of East Tennessee released a statement saying Father Brad Whitaker, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, tested positive for the new coronavirus.

Whitaker fell ill after attending the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes in Louisville between Feb. 19 and 22. If the pastor contracted the virus in Louisville, he would have traveled back to Chattanooga nearly two weeks before Tennessee announced its first confirmed case of the coronavirus in Tennessee.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga priest with coronavirus had contact with hundreds of people in weeks following exposure)

This case was confirmed in Hamilton County after more than a week of preparation by local authorities as cases popped up across the state. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state increased to 26 on Friday from Thursday's total of 18, according to the Tennessee Department of Health's daily virus update.

As of Friday, no deaths related to the virus have been reported in Tennessee. Three other people are being monitored by the county, County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Friday afternoon.

State Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey revealed Thursday two people as of Wednesday had been hospitalized because of COVID-19. That information only came in response to a specific question posed by a reporter.

When asked if the Tennessee Department of Health could confirm whether any of the state's newly confirmed COVID-19 patients were hospitalized, department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hart said in an email, "We cannot provide any additional information on the cases."

Since Thursday, President Donald Trump, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke have declared states of emergency over the outbreak.

After falling ill, Whitaker was diagnosed with pneumonia and advised by his doctor to stay home. Whitaker got tested when he learned another participant at the conference was diagnosed with the new coronavirus, said the Rt. Rev. Brian Cole, bishop of the Episcopal Church of East Tennessee, in the statement.

In a Friday morning email to the church announcing the suspension of worship services and other gatherings, Whitaker said no other church staff who attended the conference with him are showing symptoms.

St. Paul's is sanitizing the building to protect its congregants, the announcement said.

Tennessee COVID-19 case count by county

Davidson - 10 Hamilton - 1 Jefferson - 1 Knox - 1 Rutherford - 1 Shelby - 2 Sullivan - 1 Williamson - 9 Source: Tennessee Department of Health

(Read more: Chattanooga area cancellations due to fears over coronavirus)

(Read more: Gov. Bill Lee declares state of emergency over coronavirus; here's what that means)

Local response

Friday morning, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke announced operational changes to city government to prevent the spread of the then impending virus.

At a press conference, Berke said the city would be suspending all event permits, establishing continuation plans to minimize working city staff, closing certain social centers among other preventive measures to encourage social distancing.

"What we know is one of the most effective ways to deal with COVID-19 is to reduce density through what they call social distancing," the mayor said. "We are trying to figure out as a community how to make sure that happens."

Berke compared preventing the spread of the virus to extinguishing a pan fire, but said fighting it after it's become widespread is more akin to a kitchen fire. Accordingly, he announced a state of emergency in the city and an executive order creating new policies for prevention in the city including:

- Suspending all public access and activities at all Chattanooga Youth and Family Development Centers and Chattanooga Library branches beginning on Saturday, March 14, until further notice.

- Postponing events at the Tivoli Theatre, Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Auditorium, Walker Theatre and Finley Stadium until further notice.

- Suspending all public access and activities at the Eastgate Senior Center and cancel all city-sponsored senior activities until further notice.

- Instituting a rolling telecommuting policy to reduce the density of people in open facilities.

While the county has not declared a state of emergency, officials are working amongst themselves and with representatives of both the state and city to minimize the spread and risk of the outbreak.

"We're working with our administrators and we've been preparing for this for weeks," Coppinger said at the press conference. "This is something we had been preparing for since, as we suggest yesterday, it was a matter of when not if we got a case."

Hamilton County has temporarily closed schools and is discouraging other large gatherings of people while working to minimize exposure of county employees.

photo Staff photo by Tim Barber / Mayor Andy Berke announces State of Emergency in response to COVID-19 on Friday, March 13, 2020.

Houses of worship close

Faith leaders across the region canceled services in a wave of announcements, bringing local houses of worship in step with the growing number of businesses, civic centers and schools that closed their doors over virus concerns.

Dindy Taylor, bishop of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church, announced each church in the Conference - a group of nearly 1,000 Methodist churches - will close for at least two weeks.

"The faith community has an important role to play in slowing the speed of disease transmission," Taylor said in a statement on Friday. "Large gatherings of people are a petri dish for spreading the infection."

B'nai Zion and Mizpah congregations canceled services until the end of March.

The Southern Baptist Convention has not issued any declaration to member churches and is still planning its annual meeting in Orlando in June. However, each member church is allowed to make its own decision - for example Silverdale Baptist Church is closing services and Brainerd Baptist Church will remain open with some precautions.

Last week, the Diocese of Knoxville suspended the use of communion wine at services, which in the Catholic tradition is typically given by sharing a chalice. On Friday, Bishop Richard Stika said the diocese would not stop mass at any of its 51 parishes and mission churches.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @sarahgtaylor.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter at @News4Mass.