The Prince Albert evangelist who presided over daily services at a gospel centre linked to a regional outbreak of COVID-19 says church members didn’t wear masks while singing — in direct contravention of Saskatchewan’s health guidelines.
“There [was] hand sanitizer and masks provided at the door if anyone needed but, no, we didn’t wear masks while singing,” Ian Lavallee of Prince Albert’s Full Gospel Outreach Centre said Wednesday.
“We didn’t know,” he added when asked if he was aware of the provincial “places of worship” guidelines advising against singing, and requiring those who do to wear masks.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority confirmed late Wednesday that six people who attended services at the centre between Sept. 14 and Oct. 4 have tested positive for COVID-19 — a number they say is expected to increase as contact tracing efforts continue.
More than 100 people have already been contacted directly. They have been asked to immediately self-isolate and call the 811 health line so that they can be referred for an assessment.
“Individuals from several communities in Saskatchewan have been identified as close contacts to positive cases,” SHA spokesperson Doug Dahl said. “This includes some individuals who reside in First Nations communities.”
Medical health officer Khami Chokani declared the outbreak earlier on Wednesday, one day after 21 consecutive daily evening services at Full Gospel Outreach Centre were flagged by the health authority because people who were likely infectious were in attendance.
“It is being declared an outbreak as it involves numerous individuals with close contacts from multiple areas across the province,” according to the initial SHA release.
Pastor says he doesn’t plan to get tested
Pastor Vern Temple said he attended some of the daily services within the Sept. 14-Oct. 4 time frame cited by SHA, but said he did not preside over them.
“It’s sad,” he said of the outbreak.
Temple said the services typically draw between 50 and 100 people, from Prince Albert and other communities. The centre is allowed to hold up to 150 people, he said, referring to the province’s guidelines for places of worship.
“If people wanted to wear a mask, they could wear a mask,” Temple said.
He said he is self-isolating but that he does not plan to seek testing.
“I’ve talked to the health department,” Temple said. “They’ve been checking with me. And I’ve been, you know, I feel great. I feel fine.”
The centre recently hosted a revival event that involved prayers for the sick, Temple said. It took place Sept. 3 to 6, ending a week before the time frame flagged by the SHA, according to an event poster on the gospel centre’s website.
“Kind of wish the people who thought they had COVID-19 came and asked for prayer. But they went and saw the doctor instead, which is fine. I appreciate the doctors,” Temple said.
Asked if he would want someone who has COVID-19 to attend a service, Temple replied, “If they thought they were sick … possibly, if they thought that they had something. That’s what Jesus does, is he heals people.”
CBC News reached out to the Ministry of Health for comment.
“Given the number of cases identified, there is concern that there was significant risk of exposure, which would require self-isolation and assessment by the local public health unit,” said the SHA’s Dahl.
The province announced 10 new cases of COVID-19 from five different regions on Wednesday, although it was not clear if any of those are tied to the gospel centre outbreak.
‘It simply must be done’: umbrella church group
Full Gospel Outreach Centre is a member of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada’s Saskatchewan district.
On Wednesday, in the wake of the Prince Albert outbreak, the group issued a letter to member churches reminding them to follow public health guidelines — particularly the wearing of masks while singing.
“We have some churches embracing (or at least respecting) the health regulations set out by our provincial government and we have other churches determining to ignore those regulations,” wrote district superintendent Paul Israelson.
“Unfortunately, one of our churches has recently made the news of being a significant contributor to a regional outbreak of COVID. This has affected families, communities, businesses, schools and possibly could be life-threatening to some people.”
Israelson said people who don’t like the rules can blame him. “Or blame Dr. [Saqib] Shahab,” the province’s chief medical health officer, he wrote.
“It really doesn’t matter. It simply must be done. If you don’t direct your people now, you WILL be under the microscope later.”
Leader defends meetings
Lavallee, the Prince Albert church leader, said a lot of good things happened during the meetings.
“People off the street changing their way of living and many people were helped by the message of hope,” he said.
“Our main view is it’s all about Jesus and that one person can get help, whether it be through a song or a testimony,” he added.
“Many people came to the Lord.”
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