At least three people who attended events at Westmore Church of God have died from COVID-19, church officials say.
Kelvin Page, lead pastor at Westmore, said in a Facebook video that Frank Cunningham, 73, and Dr. Jimmy Bilbo, 89, died from COVID-19 after attending a service on June 21.
"This horrendous virus attacked and we lost two," Page said in the video. "Both of these men were special men who were greatly appreciated by the Westmore family. And we have learned from this horrendous virus that we must do all we can do, all we can do, to protect our vulnerable."
In an email Thursday night, Daniel Clanton, executive pastor and Westmore's general counsel, said a third elderly member of the church who was at the June 21 service has died. A fourth church member has also died, Clanton said, but church leaders believe that member was not at the services.
The church in Cleveland has drawn regional attention after its June 21 service and a June 22 regional meeting became superspreader events for the coronavirus in the region and the Church of God denomination. Last week, Page said his church stopped tracking the number of people in the congregation who were infected.
"I wouldn't even know within a range," Page said during an interview with Mix 104.1 in Cleveland on July 9. "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."
Cunningham died on July 9 and Bilbo died on July 10, according to local obituaries. Pastor Page was apparently unaware of Bilbo's death or impending death at the time of his July 9 radio interview.
"The Lord has been good," Page said in the interview. "It's been amazing how we're hearing how he's intervened in numerous situations, and up to the time of our meeting, right now, we've had no deaths that have been associated with those meetings. We've had one death in the Westmore family that was COVID related. He's a member, but they have not attended in a year due to dating somebody in another church. So they've not been at our church, but that's been the only death associated with the church, even though they were not there, they haven't been there in a year."
The Church of God denomination has experienced other deaths recently including Ernie Varner, the 59-year-old pastor of the Sixth Avenue Church of God in Lenoir City who died on July 10, and Robert Griffith, 79 years old and a founding member of Westmore, who died on July 4.
During the radio interview on July 9, Page said the virus "slipped in" to the congregation through the choir, despite the church taking precautions. The church did not require masks.
"The building was sanitized after every gathering," Page said during the Facebook video posted on July 9. "Hand sanitization stations were set up at entrances and exits. Temperatures were being taken for volunteers as well as for choir members and people that were going to be on stage or close to people. We had temperatures taken every week. Questions were asked of them, had they been around somebody with COVID? We went to extraordinary measures. I'm not even listing all those measures we took and steps we took every week."
Text messages from June 7 and 13 sent to choir and orchestra members at Westmore, and obtained by the Times Free Press, suggest the church was not always screening those in the music ministry. The messages, read, "Westmore Sanctuary: We will not be taking temperatures today, please self monitor."
Clanton said Thursday the church's safety guidelines included taking temperatures of all church volunteers, choir members and staff, and those procedures were in effect in June. The church learned that members of the choir and orchestra were told to "self-monitor" on June 15 and corrective action was taken, including temperatures being taken on June 21, Clanton said.
During the Facebook video posted Thursday, Page said his church will remain with online-only services for July 19 and July 26.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.