Short of details, public officials could only watch as church Covid outbreak unfolded

A tent used for Sunday services at Peoples Church on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The Oregon Health Authority took nearly a month to verify and disclose what is so far the largest workplace outbreak of Covid reported in 2021 at Peoples Church in Salem.

During that time, the church continued to hold services indoors where most congregants were not wearing masks, according to videos on the church’s Facebook page.

The outbreak has so far sickened 87 people, according to a May 12 report from the health authority. Oregon Health Authority reported it to the public on May 5 – after 74 people had been sickened.

Church leaders previously declined to discuss the outbreak with Salem Reporter and responded to specific questions with a statement saying they were concerned about the Covid surge in Oregon. They said the church has signs throughout the building with mask guidelines.

The Marion County Health and Human Services Department tied the first case of Covid to the church April 2, spokeswoman Jenna Wyatt said. The department began investigating a possible outbreak April 6 and notified Oregon Health Authority that date.

On April 7, Wyatt said the department contacted the church about a possible outbreak. It’s standard for health agencies to contact businesses when they begin an outbreak investigation to gather information and seek help identifying additional people who may be sick.

No government authority told church officials to stop the services.

“Our team recommended that the church adhere to guidelines from the state for faith institutions, including capacity limits, face covering requirements, and physical distancing requirements. In all outbreaks, we provide education and make recommendations to prevent the spread of the virus,” Wyatt said in an email.

The restrictions in place in early April would have required the church to limit services to 25% of capacity or 150 people, whichever is smaller. Congregants and staff were to wear masks or face coverings and maintain six feet of space between people from different households.

By April 18, church leaders were saying during services that a number of congregants were sick, including the senior pastor, who has since recovered.

Meantime, state officials followed their policy for the timing of telling the public where there is Covid trouble.

Each week, the health authority releases basic information on outbreaks it can tie to a workplace that employs at least 30 people and has five more Covid infections. Larger work outbreaks with 20 or more cases are supposed to be shared with the public in the health authority’s daily press release.

As of May 12, Oregon listed six active workplace outbreaks larger than the one at Peoples Church, but those all originated last year. They include Salem Hospital, which has recorded 195 Covid cases since last May, and the Amazon facility near Aumsville, which has recorded 156 cases since last May.

A health authority spokesman said not until May 3 did the agency verify an outbreak at the church that warranted public attention.

Local public health agencies take the lead on investigating Covid outbreaks and determining where people became infected. The state authority often helps with larger investigations and is also responsible for disclosing workplace outbreaks. That information gives the public an understanding of where the virus is spreading and allows people to take protective steps.

Outbreak investigations begin when a health authority detects at least two Covid cases at the workplace or location, said Dr. Emilio Debess, an epidemiologist with the health authority.

He said health workers can’t assume Covid spread between people just because they attend the same church. Investigators question people about recent whereabouts, seeking links between cases. Debess said that task said has grown more difficult in recent months as Covid restrictions loosened and more people are attending school, eating out and going to events.

Debess didn’t work directly on the Peoples Church outbreak, but said the health authority has been hampered in such investigations when people don’t answer the phone or won’t tell their movements in the community in the time they were likely carrying the coronavirus.

“Those limitations have been fairly significant in trying to figure out or identify outbreaks. It’s just the way human nature is in trying to protect themselves,” he said. “I’ve had people say thank you for letting me know that I was positive, thank you for hanging up the phone. It’s frustrating.”

“I understand that people want to be private. I also understand that some people want things like this to be known and this information can protect other members in the community,” Debess said.

Many counties now operate under “surge” capacity guidelines, meaning health workers prioritize investigating outbreaks at nursing homes and in other settings where people are particularly likely to become seriously ill from Covid. Schools and food processing facilities are also a higher priority.

Marion County has been operating under such rules since December.

That modifies investigations, with health workers reducing the number of questions they ask people who test positive for Covid and focusing on whether they’ve been inside a school, health care facility or have come into contact with someone at higher risk for Covid. They ask people about locations where they were possibly exposed to Covid, but do not specifically ask about events or faith gatherings.

By April 21, the health authority heard reports of at least 20 Covid cases tied to the church, spokeswoman Delia Hernandez said.

That was two weeks after Marion County began investigating an outbreak.

But at that point, Hernandez said the agency hadn’t verified the number of people working at the church, confirmed the cases were linked or established how many should be counted under the state’s outbreak criteria. Oregon counts only cases directly linked to the site of an outbreak – such as if a worker or congregant gets sick – and cases among their direct contacts, like if a sick congregant’s family came down with Covid. Cases further removed from the church wouldn’t be part of the total.

Agency officials said they didn’t establish the number of people employed at the church until May 3, a key detail in whether the outbreak required public disclosure.

While the health authority has consistently included such outbreaks in its lengthy weekly report, the daily reporting intended to alert the public to large outbreaks stopped in January.

Hernandez said the health authority’s efforts shifted toward vaccination.

There was no public announcement of the change, and the health authority only clarified its new practice after repeated questions from Salem Reporter.

“We’ll talk and see if those need to get back on,” Hernandez said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.