A California pastor and nearly all of his 160 parishioners refused to cooperate with COVID-19 contact tracers after one churchgoer with the virus attended a Mother’s Day service, a new report has revealed.

The Butte County Public Health Office said that they believed as many 180 congregants of The Palermo Bible Family Church could’ve been exposed to the virus back on May 10, after an attendee tested positive for COVID-19 the day after attending a service. 

The service was held against the orders shelter-in-place orders of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who had banned religious congregations from gathering in-person at the time.

The county dispatched a team to track and contain the disease, though their efforts were thwarted almost as quickly as they had begun after the church and the vast majority of its members refused to share information with health officials, the Sacramento Bee reported.

As consequence, the six contract tracers assigned to the investigation were only able to speak with 25 of the church’s 163 parishioners – of which only 15 percent were actually present at the Mother’s Day service.

The Butte County Public Health Office said that they believed as many 180 congregants of The Palermo Bible Family Church could’ve been exposed to the virus back on May 10, after an attendee tested positive for the virus the day after attending a service (Pictured: Pastor Michael Jacobsen during a Sunday Service on June 14)

The county dispatched a team to track and contain the disease, though their efforts were thwarted almost as quickly as they had begun after the church (above) and the vast majority of its members refused to share information with health officials, the Sacramento Bee reported.

A statement released by the church at the time suggested they were working with the county’s health department – a claim since denied by its director Danette York

Butte County’s health director, Danette York, said her staff has no idea how many of the church members and their close contacts were tested in the days after the service. It also remains unclear how many quarantined themselves.

In a May 16 email York voiced frustration at the lack of cooperation from the church and its pastor, Michael Jacobsen. 

Two days later, county health nurse Monica Soderstrom said in an email that Jacobsen had told her he had passed the county’s wishes to speak with parishioners to his congregation, though refused to provide any further information.

‘He said that he is unwilling to release a list of church members and contact info due to confidentiality reasons and is claiming clergy privilege,’ Soderstrom wrote according to the Bee, conceding she couldn’t force him to cooperate.

Jacobsen has since said he did self-quarantine though remained unapologetic for holding the in-person service against the orders of Gov. Newsom in an online sermon last week.

‘I don’t feel the like the decision we made was irresponsible,’ Jacobsen said, adding that the infected congregant wasn’t feeling any symptoms while attending the Mother’s Day service at the church.

‘They didn’t do it intentionally,’ he continued. ‘It was never in my heart to put our church in harm’s way.’

Jacobsen said he felt compelled to bring his congregation together after two months of lockdown.

‘May I just say to all of our church, you don’t need to defend us,’ he said. ‘When Jesus went before Pilate, he didn’t defend himself. So I don’t feel the need.’

Jacobsen has since said he did self-quarantine though remained unapologetic for holding the in-person service against the orders of Gov. Newsom in an online sermon last week

The in-person service was held against the orders shelter-in-place orders of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who had banned religious congregations from meeting at the time

While Butte County seems to have managed to avoid a major coronavirus outbreak, the foiled investigation into the church shed light on the challenges county health departments face in areas where skepticism of government institutions is high.

Contract tracers are assigned to track the movements of new COVID-19 patients to help determine who may have come into contact with the virus. The investigators then contact those individuals and encourage them to get tested and to self-quarantine in order to prevent a large outbreak. 

Butte health director Danette York told the Sacramento Bee that she believes the congregants reluctance to cooperate was because the church was violating Newsom’s orders and they felt ‘protective of one another and the church itself.’

‘I don’t feel the like the decision we made was irresponsible,’ Jacobsen said, adding that the infected congregant wasn’t feeling any symptoms while attending the Mother’s Day service at the church. ‘They didn’t do it intentionally,’ he continued. ‘It was never in my heart to put our church in harm’s way’

At the time of the mid-May service, Newsom had controversially banned public mass meetings, including religious congregations, from occurring. 

The order spurred  a revolt from religious leaders and a series of legal challenges across California. In excess of 1,200 pastors declared they would be holding in-person services on May 31. During the same week, an appeals court sided with Newsom after a church in San Diego sued to have the ban overturned. 

The order has since been eased, with religious groups now allowed to meet in person but only ib congregations of 100 people or less. 

‘They thought they were going to be judged for attending a service that had not been opened up yet in the state,’ she said, ‘and I believe they are very protective of the pastor and were afraid he would be judged and so they were more reluctant than they would have been under other circumstances.’ 

York however insists the role of a contract tracer is not to pass judgement, but rather save lives.

‘They are about getting information to try to prevent the spread of a communicable disease,’ she told the Bee. ‘It has nothing to do with what the individual has done or has not done or what they attended or how they were exposed. But that doesn’t necessarily come across at the time when people are worried.’

York said only one other person tied to the church is known to have contracted the virus. However, in the two weeks after the Mother’s Day service, the county did see a spike in coronavirus cases.

Nonetheless, York said none of the people who later tested positive in Butte County said they had gone to the service at Palermo Bible Family Church.

Jacobsen also criticized the decision to ban church services when business, such as supermarkets were still allowed to remain open

As of Tuesday, Butte County has had 71 reported cases of coronavirus and one death since the pandemic began three months ago. 

The Palermo Bible Family Church has held at least two in-person services since May 31, posts to its Facebook page would suggest. 

During the same June 7 service in which he voiced no remorse for holding the Mother’s Service, Jacobsen compared his experience quarantining to being under house arrest.

‘They might as well put an ankle bracelet on me,’ he said. ‘The only difference is I have broken no laws.’

Jacobsen also criticized the decision to ban church services when business, such as supermarkets were still allowed to remain open. 

‘What I found out during this pandemic is you can’t catch this at Walmart,’ he said. ‘You can’t catch the virus at Home Depot. You can’t catch the virus at liquor stores, marijuana shops. Can I be so bold? You can’t catch it at strip joints. The one place you can catch it is singing and worshiping the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. And yes! Yes! I might be a little bit bitter. Just a little bit.’



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