WINDHAM — The Department of Health and Human Services held a COVID-19 testing event at Crossing LIFE Church in Windham Monday evening, after 16 people connected to the organization tested positive for the coronavirus, according to DHHS.
On Friday, DHHS said anyone who has gone to an event at the church since July 10 — including anyone who attended its YouthStorm Inc. camp between July 16 and 18 — could have been exposed and advised them to get tested.
The disclosure of the outbreak by DHHS prompted the town of Windham to close its municipal offices to the public until at least Tuesday, the Board of Selectmen announced in a special meeting last Friday.
The first known case of COVID-19 related to the church can be traced to a Windham woman who tested positive on July 22, according to its Senior Pastor Shawn Foster. After her positive test, other members of her family also tested positive. The only symptom she had was a mild headache, according to Foster.
Before the positive test result, the woman, whom Foster did not identify, self-quarantined and notified everyone she had been in contact with, Foster said. He added the other cases were limited to a few families who attend the church.
The cases were not linked to the church by DHHS until Aug. 5, according to Laura Montenegro, a spokesperson for DHHS.
"Individuals we interviewed did not report an association to this church until Aug. 5, when we began linking individuals to this church through our extensive contact tracing efforts, resulting in the public notification on Aug. 7," Montenegro wrote in an email to The Eagle-Tribune.
"Consistent with our past practice, we released a statement to alert people of potential close contact exposure to COVID-19 because we could not identify all persons and notify them personally," Montenegro wrote. "There were various events held at this location and no complete attendee lists available for notification. In situations like these, we provide a public notification to try and reach people who may have been exposed."
According to Foster, the chuch continued to hold services and events after July 22, but they were sparsely attended as many people self-quarantined.
"For three weeks we have had hardly anyone in church even though we didn't shut it down until this last Sunday," he said.
The church has been open since April 5, Foster said. They have been abiding by the state rules to encourage distancing between families, having extra hand sanitizer and having specific entrances and exits, he explained. The church has also encouraged people to wear masks, which are not required by the state, he added.
"It is very difficult to determine the source of this virus and an individual carries on many activities and interacts with many people in the course of business each week," Foster said. "The members of the Crossing LIFE Church are no different. As far as the staff, the church does not maintain a central office where the staff gather, and staff typically do not have close daily contact. Most church members have been very diligent in following social distancing and quarantining guidelines."
Most people started to quarantine before exhibiting any symptoms because they were notified by people with symptoms of possible exposure, he said.
The latest people to test positive for the virus were a brother and sister who were tested July 21 and 24 and received results on Aug. 1, Foster said. They had mild symptoms, according to Foster.
"We are operating the best we can because we want to keep everyone safe," Foster said.
The Windham family has fully recovered and gone through the quarantine along with 10 others, Foster said. Two people are still recovering, he said.
There have been no more positive cases associated with the church other than the 16 previously announced as of Monday afternoon, Montenegro said.
According to DHHS, there are between one and four people who currently have the virus in Windham as of Monday. There have been 53 total cases in Windham, according to the department.