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The day after the leading priest of a prominent downtown church was announced as the first confirmed case of the new coronavirus in Hamilton County, the church released a timeline of events identifying groups of people who may have been exposed to the virus.
On Friday afternoon, the Episcopal Church of East Tennessee released a statement saying Brad Whitaker, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, tested positive for the new coronavirus. The priest fell ill after attending the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes in Louisville between Feb. 19 and 22.
Not knowing he was potentially exposed to the virus, Whitaker led a family burial on Feb. 22 and officiated a wedding later that evening.
The next Sunday, Feb. 23, Whitaker led two morning services at St. Paul's. The priest served communion and shared handshakes with the approximately 150 people in attendance that weekend, then was involved in a benefit concert for Metropolitan Ministries the same day with approximately 75 people in attendance. The following Tuesday, Feb. 25, Whitaker led a church staff meeting.
On Feb. 28, Whitaker led a memorial service for the Chattanooga Bar Association, the group of more than 800 local attorneys. The CBA sent an email to all members Friday evening alerting them they may have been exposed to the virus at the service and to contact the Chattanooga - Hamilton County Health Department.
Timeline of events from Brad Whitaker
St. Paul's Episcopal Church released a timeline of events where Brad Whitaker, rector of St. Paul's, had contact with members of the public. People who have shown symptoms are encouraged to contact the Chattanooga - Hamilton County Health Department. - Officiating a small family burial on Saturday morning, February 22 - Officiating a wedding on Saturday evening, February 22 - Attending the 8:00 Eucharist on Sunday, February 23 and serving communion - Celebrating the 10:30 Eucharist on Sunday, February 23 and serving communion - Leading staff meeting on Tuesday, February 25 - Celebrating the 12:05 Eucharist on Monday, March 2 - Attending the first Thorne Sparkman lecture on Wednesday, March 4
Whitaker again led a communion service on March 2, then attended the church's lecture series event on March 4, according to the timeline released by the church.
On March 3, the priest joined a monthly Bible study on racial reconciliation with around 30 people in attendance from St. Paul AME Church, Olivet Baptist Church and St. Paul's Episcopal, said Jane Bowen, a member of St. Paul's. The other churches have been made aware of possible exposure and future study sessions have been cancelled, she said.
Whitaker fell ill with what he thought was a cold and sinus infection that developed into pneumonia around March 1, the priest said in a March 7 email to church members. He removed himself from church services that weekend and was then tested for COVID-19 after learning he may have been exposed to the virus at the conference in Louisville.
While scientists are still learning about how COVID-19 spreads, it is believed to move primarily from person-to-person through close contact with droplets produced by an infected person coughing or sneezing, similar to other respiratory illnesses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC website says people are thought to be most contagious when they are the sickest. It may also be possible to contract the virus by touching a surface with the virus on it and then touching one's face, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. Symptoms of COVID-19 may appear 2 to 14 days after exposure based on what is known about other coronavirus, according to the CDC.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Tennessee increased to 32 on Saturday from Friday's total of 26, according to the Tennessee Department of Health's daily virus update. No deaths related to the virus have been reported in Tennessee. Meanwhile in Georgia, 66 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed as of Saturday, including one death related to the virus. Most of Georgia's cases are in Atlanta and North Georgia.
(READ MORE: Chattanooga's major hospitals decline to answer questions about coronavirus testing as providers ramp up efforts)
If Whitaker 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.
The downtown Chattanooga church is sanitizing the building to slow the potential spread of the virus. In a Friday morning email to church members announcing the suspension of worship services and other gatherings, Whitaker said no other church staff who attended the conference with him are showing symptoms.
In a letter released Saturday, Whitaker said he is feeling well and believes he is at the end of his illness. His family will isolate at home for the next 14 days but have not shown symptoms.
Members of St. Paul's Episcopal Church expressed concerns about potentially being exposed to the virus. In the days since the case was announced, many said they received supportive phone calls and emails from people in the community checking in on them.
The health department sent a news release Saturday afternoon asking citizens who may have come in contact with Whitaker to take the following precautions and help the department identify those who were exposed.
According to the department, if you attended any events at St. Paul Episcopal Church (located at 305 W. Seventh St., Chattanooga) between Feb. 23 and March 13, or attended a Chattanooga Bar Association meeting held at the Hamilton County Court House (located at 625 Georgia Ave., Chattanooga) on Feb. 28, and the health department has not already contacted you, you need to be aware of a possible exposure to a confirmed case of COVID-19. If it has been more than 14 days since you were at the church or bar association meeting, your risk for coronavirus is very low.
However, the release cautions that if you have had respiratory symptoms including fever, cough and/or difficulty breathing within that 14-day period, please call the health department hotline at 423-209-8383. If it's been less than 14 days and you had close contact with the case, such as being within 6 feet of the case for more than 15 minutes and you are symptom free, you should self-quarantine at home and monitor your health.
"We are contacting every individual that we have been made aware of. Some of these gatherings could have a large number of attendees and we may not be aware of every person that attended," Health Department Spokesman Tom Bodkin said in an email Saturday afternoon. "Out of an abundance of caution, we are working with our media partners to issue this press release in hopes that we can reach any contacts that we did not know about."
City leaders had no comment Saturday afternoon but said they have kept close contact with leaders of the church and representatives of the health department.
This is a developing story. Stay with the Times Free Press for updates.
Tennessee confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Saturday, March 14
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Tennessee increased to 32 on Saturday from Friday's total of 26, according to the Tennessee Department of Health's daily virus update. No deaths related to the virus have been reported in Tennessee. Davidson County still has the most people infected - 14 - followed by Williamson County with 10. Hamilton County did not report any new cases after reporting its first case on Friday. Meanwhile in Georgia, 66 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed as of Saturday, including one death related to the virus. Most of Georgia's cases are in Atlanta and North Georgia. Tennessee confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Saturday, March 14: Campbell - 1 Davidson - 14 Hamilton -1 Jefferson - 1 Knox - 1 Rutherford - 1 Shelby - 2 Sullivan - 1 Williamson - 10 Source: Tennessee Department of Health