More than 200 people in Saint John are self-isolating because of possible exposure to a COVID-19 variant during Palm Sunday service at RiverCross Church, after they were originally told they didn't need to, according to an email obtained by CBC News.
An adult and child from the same family who attended the March 28 service at the church in the city's north end have tested positive, and "the exposure was likely a COVID-19 variant," senior pastor Rob Nylen advised parishioners on April 6 shortly before 10 p.m.
"I can only imagine how disappointed and frustrated you were to hear the news that you had a potential exposure a few days ago," he wrote. "This can be shocking to hear."
Parishioners who attended the service were initially notified on April 3 that someone had tested positive, but the Department of Health had deemed the risk "low," according to an email from Nylen and the co-chairs of the board of deacons.
"While we are not required to notify you, we want to be fully transparent," the email stated. "We would ask that you monitor yourself for symptoms and if you are not feeling well, get a COVID test."
The instructions changed on April 6, however, after tests showed a child from the same family, who attended the RiverKids child-care program on March 28, likely has the variant.
"Because the virus is different, the advice from Public Health on how to respond is different," the email said.
"Therefore, all 209 of you who attended worship on March 28th were (or will be) required to isolate until midnight Sunday April 11th and being asked to get a COVID-19 test."
Public Health is treating the case as a "presumptive variant of concern," confirmed spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane.
"Out of an abundance of caution and keeping the public's safety in mind, we are treating this case as a presumptive variant of concern that requires laboratory confirmation from National Microbiology Laboratory" in Winnipeg, he said in an emailed statement.
Macfarlane could not say which of the highly transmissible variants it might be.
So far, only the variant first detected in the U.K. has been confirmed in New Brunswick, but other variants, such as the P1, associated with Brazil, and the B1351, originally tracked in South Africa, have been quickly spreading across Canada.
Asked why parishioners were not told to isolate as soon as the first person tested positive for COVID-19, Macfarlane said: "Once laboratory results revealed a variant of concern for the related case, Public Health directly called impacted contacts and provided public health guidance by Public Health staff."
Pregnant mother among those isolating
Kyle Rogers, his pregnant wife Celeste, and their 15-month-old son Benjamin are on Day 3 of their self-isolation.
They got tested Thursday and their results all came back negative, he said.
Still, Rogers worries that parishioners were going about their usual lives for 10 days.
"It definitely always is a worry, given the asymptomatic nature [of COVID-19] and all of that. And that's why we decided to go get tested right away," he said.
"We just wanted to make sure that we were all good and just praying that everyone else is OK. We haven't heard anything else that's come about from it, which is fantastic so far."
Rogers, 24, said it was the first time his family attended church since the pandemic began. "We thought, 'Well, it's getting closer to Easter. We might as well try and see how it was,'" he said.
"Just our luck that it was the one time we would be there."
They wore masks and sat at the back. "Everybody kept their distance and the place seemed fairly clean."
Church seats 600
In an interview Friday, the pastor said all COVID-19 protocols were followed.
The worship centre seats 600, but only 175 adults attended the service, while 34 children attended youth programs in other parts of the building, said Nylen.
"So we're well under our provincial requirements there."
The church also has a "pretty hearty operational plan," Nylen said.
"Hand sanitizing, masks are mandatory for everyone for the whole service, we're physically distancing — four seats in between each person, and the row in front and the row behind are left vacant, contact tracing, one person at a time [in] the washroom, we have someone that roams around the building kind of cleaning as the morning goes on. So we have been pretty diligent with all of that stuff."
Nylen said his voice mailbox has been filling up with people calling to let him know their tests came back negative, but he hasn't heard of anyone else testing positive.
Certainly, people are wisely concerned, but I wouldn't say there's been any panic. - Rob Nylen, senior pastor
When he was tested on Thursday afternoon, he was told the results could take up to 72 hours because of the number of people being tested around the city, he advised in an email.
Parishioners have been coping well, he said.
"Certainly, people are wisely concerned, but I wouldn't say there's been any panic."
They've expressed concern for the people who tested positive and have offered to help them and any others in isolation by bringing them food or running errands.
His family celebrated a birthday Wednesday and relied on the kindness of others to pick up a birthday gift and a cake, he said in an email.
"So everybody's been pulling together."
The situation has made people more mindful of their contacts, said Nylen.
"I've heard people saying, you know, 'I've become a little bit more aware. I need to remember we're still in the middle of a pandemic.'"
The church has no concerns with how Public Health handled the situation, according to Nylen.
"They've been fast. They've been quick. They've given us clear instructions. … We've had nothing but helpful advice and clear advice right from the get-go."