This story was updated at 10:17 a.m. on Thursday, July 9, 2020, with more information.
The Church of God denomination in Cleveland is facing a significant outbreak of COVID-19 in its state and international offices, as well as in local churches.
However, little is being said publicly about the number of cases or efforts to notify people who may have come in contact with the virus during a potential superspreader event last month.
The Pentecostal denomination of around 6 million members is headquartered in Cleveland, Tennessee, with many of its churches located in the Southeast.
Across Tennessee, the severity of outbreaks in houses of worship remains a mystery unless the church announces it. The state only reports coronavirus clusters connected to long-term care facilities, said Amanda Goodhard, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Health Southeast Regional Office.
Church of God leaders, as well as state and international office members, will not say the number of cases in their congregations or workplaces.
Yet, the cases that are known appear to be tied to Westmore Church of God and specifically a large revival service the church hosted last month.
Throughout June, Westmore held in-person services in the new building it opened on May 31 on Legacy Parkway in Cleveland.
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.
People gathered at Westmore were not wearing masks and many stood in close proximity to one another. A full choir sang. Speakers moved throughout the crowd and people gathered, nearly hugging, to place hands on one another in prayer.
In conditions such as this, a single infected person can spread a lot of the virus in a short amount of time, said Dr. William Schaffner, infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University. A superspreader event can exponentially increase a health department's contact tracing workload as it attempts to follow up with every potential contact of every new case.
"All of a sudden you have a whole large number of new cases that occur more or less simultaneously, and if you're trying to do contact tracing, you're trying to contact trace the contacts of all of these people," Schaffner said. "So they do become stressors on the public health response."
Nearly 200 new confirmed infections have been reported in Bradley County in the past week.
Rae Bond, chairwoman of the Hamilton County COVID-19 Task Force, said health officials want to reiterate the importance of isolating at the first sign of symptoms and during the time spent awaiting test results.
"We are seeing community spread at a variety of events — graduations, weddings, other gatherings," Bond said. "There was a significant outbreak in Cleveland, Tennessee, from a church activity."
On June 24, two days after that gathering, Westmore's lead pastor Kelvin Page announced the first COVID-19 case in his congregation. The next day, Page announced in a Facebook video that there were five cases in the church. The day after that, June 26, Page said there were at least 12 confirmed cases and the church services would be online-only for June 28 and July 5.
On July 1, Westmore said in a statement that the church leadership was "made aware of a number of additional confirmed cases" in the congregation.
Several members of the church's leadership team, including Page and the church's general counsel, did not respond to multiple requests for comment in the past week about the number of confirmed cases or what efforts the church was making to notify people, especially those from surrounding areas, who may have been exposed to the virus during the meeting.
It's therefore not clear how many cases have sprung up or whether patients include members of the pastoral staff.
Page was not present during the church's July 5 online service. Instead, the church showed a rerun of his sermon from May 31.
Gospel singer Jason Crabb postponed an upcoming show, citing technical difficulties, three days after performing at Westmore. The musician performed without his band in Gadsden, Alabama, on June 27, then canceled the show that was scheduled the next day in Jackson, Tennessee. He was also scheduled to play in Denton, North Carolina, on July 1, but that was canceled, citing a family emergency. Crabb's manager did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.
Many members of the Church of God's state and international offices were in the crowd at Westmore that night.
Last week, the international offices in Cleveland closed because of a "spike in COVID-19 cases" in the area, according to an announcement at the time. On Tuesday, Cameron Fisher, communications coordinator for the denomination, said there were several cases of the virus among the office staff.
"Some have fully recovered and others are in the process. Due to privacy concerns, names and the number of staff members reporting COVID-19 symptoms will not be released except to local health officials," Fisher said in the statement.
Other area employers, including Amazon and Koch Foods, have made public the number of cases among their employees.
Tim Hill, general overseer of the Church of God denomination, gave the sermon at Westmore on June 22. Hill — who in April was appointed to President Donald Trump's Interfaith Advisory Council on reopening the country after coronavirus-related shutdowns — announced on Tuesday that the coming Sunday would be a day of prayer for "divine healing" from the virus, which he said was affecting the Church of God.
On June 26, the Tennessee Church of God state office announced it would close for COVID-19 cleaning. Leaders from the office did not respond to requests for further comment last week or on Tuesday.
At the same time, in recent weeks, Church of God congregations throughout the area have gone back to online-only services or announced cases among their members.
Ernie Varner, senior pastor at Sixth Avenue Church of God in Lenoir City, who sits on the Tennessee Church of God state ministries board, announced last week that he and his wife Angeleea were sick with the virus. On July 4, Varner announced on Facebook that he was in the intensive care unit.
Jimmie and Renee Talley, lead pastors of the Ministry Center in Hixson, announced they were sick with the virus in June. Jimmie Talley serves on the Tennessee Church of God state council.
Kevin Brooks, mayor of Cleveland and a member of the Church of God, is currently hospitalized with double pneumonia. On Tuesday, he announced he tested positive for the coronavirus. In his announcement, published Tuesday by the Cleveland Daily Banner, he asked people to wear masks.
Cleveland Mayor Emeritus Tom Rowland and his wife Sandra announced on Saturday they tested positive, according to the Cleveland Daily Banner. The couple attended a church service at Westmore on June 21.
Dawn Lipsey, women's ministry leader at South Cleveland Church of God and who serves on the Tennessee Church of God women's ministries board, announced she tested positive for COVID-19 on June 26. The church has returned to drive-in services for this Sunday.
Other Church of God congregations, including North Cleveland Church of God and Mt. Olive Ministries, suspended in-person services, citing a recent rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases in Bradley County.
Cases in Bradley County began to spike at the beginning of last month. On June 11, Cleveland was featured on The New York Times' list of COVID-19 hotspots.
There are currently 773 confirmed cases in Bradley County and 41 people hospitalized with the virus.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.