The priest who was Chattanooga's first COVID-19 case speaks about why he went public, why his church is still closed and why he still wears a mask

Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Brad Whitaker, rector of St. Paul's Epicopal Church, stands in the church hallway on May 28, 2020, more than two months after he publicly announced he was Hamilton County's first COVID-19 case.

The early days of March in Chattanooga were ones of uncertainty as cities across the country began reporting outbreaks of the coronavirus. On March 5, Tennessee announced its first case, in Williamson County. Then Gov. Bill Lee announced a state of emergency.

But days went by with no case reported in Hamilton County. Local leaders outlined their mitigation plans for a pandemic that had yet to become local.

That all changed on March 13 when Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger stood at a podium to announce the deadly virus was in Chattanooga.

Across town, that afternoon, the leaders of St. Paul's Episcopal Church decided to follow the county's announcement with their own: The first confirmed COVID-19 patient was in their church. It was their priest.

The decision to go public was the right thing to do, said Brad Whitaker, rector of St. Paul's. But the announcement caused a firestorm of focus on the church and its priest. In that moment, despite the many ways someone can come into contact with COVID-19, Whitaker became the face of an invisible virus that was stirring fear across Chattanooga.

Every new case - within a week there were eight - would somehow be connected to Whitaker, his name at least mentioned, even if he was in no way responsible for the spread.

"Early on, everybody wants to draw dot to dot to dot. OK, he's patient zero or he's patient one," Whitaker said. " There are so many ways that we can come into contact with the virus that, early on, it just felt like it was hyper-focused. That was difficult to bear for my family. Being naturally protective with me, that was difficult for them to bear. They didn't like hearing and reading some of the things that they did. But we knew it was the right thing to do and I don't regret it."

(READ MORE: More testing brings COVID-19 case surge in Chattanooga; is it also a sign of danger?)

The priest quit reading comments on social media within the first few hours of the announcement. It became clear doing so was not good for his mental health, he said. His life became something for public scrutiny after the church released his schedule in February and March to increase awareness about people who may have come in contact with him.

Whitaker got sick in late February after attending a conference in Louisville between Feb 19 and 22 for leaders in the Episcopal Church.

He developed a headache, sore throat, body aches and a cough. He felt he could not take a deep breath and had a constant taste of burnt toast in his mouth, Whitaker said. He experienced almost all of the recognized symptoms of COVID-19 but had a more mild case. When he went to the doctor, he was diagnosed with pneumonia. He rode out the sickness at home.

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

On March 9, he learned others who attended the conference were confirmed to have COVID-19, a group that would grow to six participants. Whitaker then got tested but did not get his positive result back until five days later, on March 13.

By the time of the announcement Whitaker was feeling better and actually received confirmation from the Hamilton County Health Department that he was cleared to return to work, having recovered from the virus.

But the priest was haunted knowing he had been sick for weeks, going about some of his regular work responsibilities and potentially putting people at risk. He flashed back to every handshake, he said.

"Everybody. Every place. I worried about every place I was," Whitaker said. "But there were also some very specific folks who I knew were immunosuppressed that I was around. That scared the hell out of me ... I spent a lot of time praying for those folks. And you do feel a sense of responsibility and fear that you've harmed someone else."

The Sunday after he was exposed to the virus, Whitaker led the church service, shaking hands with dozens of congregants and delivering communion. He also led a family burial, officiated a wedding, conducted a memorial service for the Chattanooga Bar Association and was part of a church staff meeting.

While confirmed cases increased throughout the month, there was no surge in cases after Whitaker's announcement. Hospitalizations and deaths did not increase dramatically as they did in other parts of the state. At the time, the Hamilton County Health Department was only testing people with the most extreme symptoms and those who had been exposed to a confirmed case of the virus, but the data suggests Chattanooga dodged what could have been a major outbreak.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga's essential workers fear risks as COVID-19 numbers rise)

Whitaker only knows of one person who got sick with the virus and that person told Whitaker he was sick before coming into contact with the priest. The county health department declined to comment on whether any local COVID-19 cases were connected to St. Paul's, citing limited resources.

As of Thursday, less than 1% of Hamilton County's population has been infected with the virus since the local outbreak began in March. Many residents do not know anyone who has been infected. Whitaker is among the number who are considered "recovered," and he said people in his position can lead by example in keeping the community safe. Everyone should act like they have the virus, he said.

In stores and on the street, people have recognized Whitaker and thanked him for speaking up, he said.

Whitaker still wears a mask - one his wife, Harriett, made to resemble his typical black shirt and white clerical collar - because so much is still unknown about the virus, particularly if people can be re-infected. Harriett tested positive for COVID-19, too, but never showed symptoms, Whitaker said. Their children were tested at the same time but were negative.

The services at St. Paul's will remain online until there are multiple weeks of declining new cases in the county. The past month has been anything but that, with cases climbing from 163 on May 1 to 843 on May 28 and a growing racial disparity in those who are getting sick.

Whenever the doors are reopened to the public, communion will not be shared from the same cup. Those most at risk will be encouraged to stay home. There will be more services but limited occupancy at each. There will be a covenant between people in the pews and the church, requiring people to wear masks and stay physically distant. Those who refuse to do so will be asked to leave, Whitaker said.

(READ MORE: How Chattanooga churches are weighing reopening during the coronavirus pandemic)

Much has changed since St. Paul's announcement in March. Whitaker still has some residual effects of the pneumonia he had when he was the case number one. The county cases total has since surpassed 800. Shuttered restaurants have table service again. Important religious holidays were altered. A church that reopened is again closed after new COVID-19 cases were linked there. A church and several people of faith sued the city for its lockdown measures. Other faith groups are accusing local leaders of not doing enough to protect residents.

Whatever unity existed about shutting down for a period of time is gone. Whether to wear a mask has increasingly become a political symbol or an act of rebellion. The same with keeping church services online or returning to the pews. In April, around 150 people lined the Market Street Bridge to protest the economic shutdown to stop the spread.

Whitaker recognizes the difficult position people are in when being asked to stay apart and stay at home. God created people to live in community with one another, he said. But part of being Christian is making sacrifices for the wellbeing of others, he said.

"As a Christian, I'm called to give up a certain number of things to live in community and out of respect for others [and] as a call to love them in the way that God loves me and Jesus loves me. I can't do that and be only a selfish person," Whitaker said. "In many ways, wearing a mask is my Christian responsibility."

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.