Mayor, northern chief calling for charges against organizers of ‘superspreader’ event

Large gospel outreach gatherings in CB building linked to multiple positive COVID-19 cases across Saskatchewan and more than 100 close contacts

A photo originally posted to Facebook has been digitally altered to blur the faces of attendees. The photo shows a religious gathering held at the Full Gospel Outreach Centre in Prince Albert. Photo by facebook /Regina Leader-Post

Prince Albert’s mayor wants health officials to “throw the book” at organizers of a recent gospel outreach revival event in Prince Albert that has been linked to at least 11 possible cases of COVID-19 and more than 100 potential contacts.

Tuesday night, then again on Wednesday, the Saskatchewan Health Authority released a COVID-19 exposure alert about a business in Prince Albert — Prince Albert Gospel Outreach Church at 921 Central Ave. The exposure covers Sept. 14 to Oct. 4.

The alert relates to a series of Full Gospel Outreach revival events held in the CB building over a three-week period that saw dozens attend packed into tight quarters. Photos from the event show few, if any, wearing a mask.

Pastor Vern Temple told CBC he attended some of the daily services but did not preside over them. He said the services draw between 50 and 100 people from Prince Albert and surrounding communities.

Temple said he will not be seeking testing.

“I’ve talked to the health department,” Temple told CBC. “They’ve been checking with me. And I’ve been, you know, I feel great. I feel fine. 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.”

Since speaking to CBC, Temple has been called by Mayor Greg Dionne, who told him to shut down all programs and meetings. Dionne said Temple has complied.

According to the province, people who attended the events in Prince Albert have since travelled to areas throughout the province. Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said Thursday that six cases have been tied to the event, with a further five under investigation. Over 100 close contacts have been identified by public health.

“As a result of this, we are expecting to see COVID cases in communities throughout the north and far north,” Shahab said.

“It is critical that everyone who attended on those dates at those events self-isolate for 14 days and seek testing if symptomatic. This is critical to prevent further transmission from that event.”

As a result, northern communities have gone into lockdown as positive cases linked to the gospel event pop up in their communities.

“We have to do this. It’s for the safety of the public, and our community and our members,” said Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation Chief Peter Beatty.

As of Thursday morning travel to and from the reserve is limited to essential service workers and people with essential reasons to leave, like medical appointments. Visits between households are prohibited and vehicles entering the community are subject to search. School is on hold. Beatty said leaders will meet next week to decide whether to resume it.

RCMP detachments in Pelican Narrows, Southend and Deschambault Lake said their front counter services are restricted to emergencies but they are still responding to calls.

Five people — three in Deschambault Lake and two in the Southend and Reindeer Lake area — tested positive.

Beatty said the cases in Deschambault Lake were identified Wednesday by contact tracing. All were asymptomatic, and he fears that they could have unknowingly spread the virus.

Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) medical health officer Dr. Nnamdi Ndubuka said the risk to northern First Nations has gone up lately because of a “super-spreader” event in Prince Albert with more than 100 close contacts across the province.

Ndubuka said four of the eight active cases in his area were related to those events.NITHA issued an advisory earlier this week of possible exposures at funerals and wakes in Pelican Narrows on Oct. 4 and 5, as well as Waterhen Lake First Nation on Oct. 5.

Shahab said the investigation has led officials to believe that some speakers at the gospel event came from Manitoba and Alberta and that those provinces are working with Saskatchewan on the investigation.

“I think they have to be held accountable for that event and the way it was handled,” Beatty said.

He’s not the only one.

“I’m very concerned,” Dionne said. “It’s all over the province that we were the cause of a super spreader event. I will be demanding charges be laid.”

Speaking to CBC, the event’s organizers said they were not aware of the province’s guidelines regarding physical distancing, masks for singers and limited capacity at facilities.

They told the outlet that masks were not worn by people singing at the events, though masks and hand sanitizer were available for those who needed it.

Dionne apologized to anyone who has been affected by the event.

“If we would have known about it, we would have taken immediate action and shut it down,” he said.

Dionne added that he personally checked to make sure the building was closed and doors locked.

Dionne contacted his own prayer group, who said that while it’s fine for believers to believe they will be saved, no one is above the law and everyone must follow the provincial restrictions that have been set out.

Mostly, Dionne said, he’s frustrated that work done by Prince Albert and other communities to limit the spread of COVID-19 has been undermined by one group failing to follow restrictions.

“The city of P.A. and all the northern communities have been working in partnership, together, to try to control the spread because everyone was afraid it would come from the north. Instead, it’s come from the south.”

Dionne vowed that the church will not operate again until the current situation is resolved, and those in charge held responsible.

“I’m going to be asking them to throw the book at it. The only way we’re going to stop this is if people follow the rules. It’s so disappointing. We were doing so well. Everyone was following the rules.”

CBC reported that the umbrella organization that the Prince Albert outreach falls under said they have churches respecting health regulations and reminded its members that people have to sit apart, wear a mask to sing and spaces should be disinfected frequently.

While much of the blame has been placed on organizers, Shahab said it’s equally the fault of attendees for failing to socially distance or wear masks.

“Everyone who attends also has to follow guidelines,” he said.

“It is the responsibility of all of us to adhere to them, not just organizers of an event.”

 He added that places of worship, to this point, have not been linked to any major outbreaks of COVID-19.

“Places of worship have been open since March. We have not seen problems in places of worship because they have been very diligent and conscientious,” Shahab said. “That has kept our case numbers low. This is a reminder for all of us that our guidelines have served us really well. COVID is still in Saskatchewan, in Canada and we have to do everything we can to keep our numbers low.”

– With StarPhoenix files from Zak Vescera

This story was updated at 12:55 p.m. Oct. 9 to fix a attributed quote. The Herald regrets the error.