Kelvin Page, lead pastor at Westmore Church of God where a cluster of COVID-19 infections has swept through his congregation, said in a video posted on the church's social-media page, that the last weeks have been tough and that he felt responsible for the outbreak.
“One of the most challenging things I've ever had to do was to hear how COVID-19 was attacking numerous more family members, friends, and even community leaders over the last couple of weeks,” he said.
He said he felt responsible for “not reading the state of the virus.”
“I feel responsible to the Westmore family for what has happened,” he said. “I deeply regret that.”
Page said he, his mother and his wife have all battled the virus, but have since recovered. He also expressed sadness for those who were sickened, especially the congregation's vulnerable elderly members.
Although the church had been holding services in its parking lot in the weeks leading up to the outbreak, Page said as cases declined in Bradley County, the church made the decision to hold services inside its new campus.
During the last Sunday in May, Page said the church, in accordance with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s guidelines for reopening churches, as well as in consultation with the Bradley County Health Department, chose to hold services inside its new sanctuary after several weeks of holding them in the church’s parking lot.
“We decided to move forward with what we called our grand opening,” he said. "And after four weeks of services, a grand opening and two separate weeks of dedication services … we did not have one single COVID incident.”
He said measures such as temperature checks and sanitizing the building after services had been implemented.
“We went to extraordinary measures,” he said. “And then came Father’s Day.”
Page said the virus had “somehow made it into the choir.”
“It was invading that morning,” he said. “It hit and it hit hard.”
In previous statements, Page said as many as 12 members were infected. However, that number has risen.
“I honestly don’t know how many we have,” he said.
On June 25, Page announced via a video on the church's social media page that five church members had tested positive for the virus. The next day, Page announced the number of individuals testing positive had increased to 12, forcing the church to offer online-only church services to its members through July 11.
On July 8, Bradley County added a record-breaking 101 new COVID-19 cases.
The video bulletin was made just days after the church hosted a Father's Day event featuring gospel singer Jason Crabb, which was followed the next day by a three-hour regional worship service for Southeast Tennessee Church of God congregations.
Several days after performing at the church, Crabb posted a message on his social media page to announce he had canceled an appearance for that night. Cancellations of other scheduled performances were also announced. He resumed his concert schedule on July 12.
Due to spikes in local infection rates, Page said the church would adjust its worship schedule, with plans to re-open on July 12. Those plans were delayed, according to Page's July 9 video.
On July 7, as reported by the Cleveland Daily Banner, Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks announced he had tested positive for COVID-19 while undergoing treatment for double pneumonia.
Brooks is also employed by the Church of God's International Offices, where he is the church's public affairs and conference coordinator.
On June 25, after learning of an employee who tested positive for COVID-19, church officials closed the complex the next day, with plans to remain closed for the next two weeks.
On Friday evening, Brooks was released from Tennova-Cleveland where he spent 11 days in the intensive care unit.
In a previous news story published by the Banner, Cleveland Mayor Emeritus Tom Rowland confirmed with the local newspaper that he and his wife, Sandra, had tested positive for COVID-19. Rowland, who served as Cleveland mayor for 28 years prior to retiring, said he and the city's former first lady had also visited Westmore Church of God.
At last report, the Rowlands were resting comfortably at home.
Page said the congregation will move forward. Services were conducted online on Sunday and will also take place on July 19, with plans to re-open the church at a later date.
He said everyone must learn to live with the virus.
“The virus is not going away,” he said. “Running from it is not going to make it go away.”
He said masks must be considered by everyone.
“It’s something we need to take serious,” he said. “We have to learn how to live with it and manage it.”