Attendees of a men’s retreat held at United Methodist Church in Pickford are at risk of COVID, but local health officials say they have no way to reach out because the event organizer won’t answer questions. The church merely allowed retreat organizers to use its facilities, and was not part of the retreat.
Who was there, how long they stayed, and who is most at-risk — it’s all unknown for health officials investigating a COVID-19 case linked to a four-day men’s retreat at a church in the eastern Upper Peninsula.
Health officials worry that many of the 50 or more men who attended the gathering are older, and may have health conditions that come with age, which makes them more vulnerable to serious illness from the coronavirus.
The biggest obstacle: Nobody in the group will cooperate with public health workers. Health departments covering five U.P. counties have been unable to learn the names of the men, or who they may have come in contact with since the retreat ended last Sunday, the officials told Bridge Michigan.
The event’s leader hung up on a contact tracer who called him. Another person who was called this week accused the health official of “working for Satan” because of her job in public health.
“It’s hard to get control of this virus when we can’t get the information” to alert people they may have been infected, said Dr. Jim Terrian, the medical director for the LMAS Health Department, which serves Luce, Mackinac, Alger and Schoolcraft counties, for nearly 50 years.
“This is the most peculiar situation I’ve ever seen,” he said, referring both to the pandemic and the reluctance of at least some of the public to cooperate with public health workers.
The stonewalling comes at a precarious moment for the region. Cases in the four rural counties covered by LMAS and neighboring Chippewa County jumped from 125 to 199, a 60 percent increase, since Sept. 15, according to state data.
Cases have climbed in the western U.P. as well, including areas that had remained relatively unscathed by the pandemic until now. Parts of the western Upper Peninsula are experiencing the highest rates of infections of any area in Michigan — and some of the highest ever seen outside metro Detroit.
- Michigan’s Upper Peninsula getting hit hard by surge of coronavirus cases
- Across Michigan, coronavirus contact tracers face lies, anger and silence
The men’s retreat was held Oct. 1-4 at United Methodist Church in Pickford, about 45 miles northeast of Mackinaw City in Chippewa County.
Health officials say the church, which allowed the retreat organizer to use its space, has cooperated with authorities. The church follows social-distancing protocols during services and sanitized its building, including its meeting rooms and kitchen, after the retreat.
“They have been doing everything right,” said Kerry Ott, spokeswoman for LMAS.
Pastor Tim Bashore told Bridge he had only the name of the organizer, who had contacted him months ago about the retreat. The men, who he believed came from outside the Upper Peninsula, were part of Keryx, a non-denominational, Christian program which also ministers to those in prison. They stayed overnight in the church, he said.
A Bridge message left through the Keryx website seeking comment was not immediately answered Friday.
The investigation began Tuesday when a public health nurse for LMAS contacted a local man who had tested positive for COVID. He told her that he had attended the Pickford men’s retreat. However, he would not offer a specific location or other details, Ott said.
It wasn’t until Thursday that the public health nurse was able, through another source, to determine that the retreat was held at United Methodist. When contacted by the health department, Bashore shared the name of the event organizer. But when the nurse called the organizer, he would not give up information and instead hung up on her, Ott said.
That prompted LMAS, which already has issued notices about possible exposures at Mackinac Island and its ferry service, to issue its first public alert of the pandemic warning of “high risk” exposure, since it had no other way to reach the retreat attendees.
“An infected individual was in attendance and had close contact with many of those who were there,” the alert warned, and urged anyone attending the event to call the LMAS or Chippewa health offices.
It wasn’t just the retreat participants who were at risk. An unknown number of others — including volunteers who prepared meals — also may have been exposed as the men met in rooms and had “significantly close, extended contact in small spaces,” Ott said.
Chippewa County health officials are also monitoring any outbreaks closely, said health officer Karen Senkus. She said most of the public cooperate with contact tracers in other cases. Any reluctance, she said, has been driven by misinformation on social media and a deep politicization of the virus.
“If this is the year you’d have a pandemic hit, it’s the worst,” she said.
Ott called the pushback against health workers, whose role is “to take care of people, to keep people safe,” unprecedented. It was Ott who was told she was working for Satan.
The health agencies ask anyone in attendance at the men’s retreat to contact the LMAS District Health Department at 906-322-4444 or the Chippewa County Health Department at 906-635-1566.
Bridge reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.