SINGAPORE: The mood at Grace Assembly of God was jubilant a few weeks ago, judging by the posts on the church's Facebook page as it prepared to celebrate its 70th anniversary.
When cases of the new coronavirus were reported in Singapore in end-January, there were social media reminders for people who felt unwell to rest at home. Some face-to-face sessions were halted as a precaution.
About a week before the anniversary celebrations, the church implemented mandatory temperature taking for children and youth services, encouraged "no hand shaking" and increased frequency of cleaning.
Explore our interactive: All the COVID-19 cases in Singapore and the clusters and links between them
In the weekend of Feb 8, the church marked the launch of its 70th year celebrations by live-streaming a joyous service live from its Tanglin branch.
It was largely business-as-usual.
THE FIRST CASES
However, on Feb 12, the mood dipped. The Ministry of Health (MOH) had just announced two confirmed cases of COVID-19: Church employees who had been to the Bukit Batok and Tanglin branches of the church before they were diagnosed.
That day, the church announced on Facebook that services and other activities were being suspended for two weeks.
It soon came to light that one of the first few employees infected was senior pastor Wilson Teo, who wrote a note to members of the church.
“I am sorry for adding another concern to you with this news,” he wrote. “Please rest assured that I am recovering well. I am looking forward to my full recovery, when I will share with all of you on Grace Assembly's journey in overcoming this virus."
The other employee also diagnosed with COVID-19, who is referred to by MOH as case 48, spoke to CNA about his experience.
He cannot be named, in accordance to MOH's practice of keeping the identity of cases confidential.
Discharged on Feb 17, the patient said in an interview with CNA that he was "left speechless" by the diagnosis.
READ: 'Running a marathon on the bed': COVID-19 survivors describe their struggles with the coronavirus
“I felt unsettled and uncertain of what to expect,” he said. He said his faith kept him optimistic and he gained solace in knowing that there were many people praying for him and his family.
“There was also a sense of guilt because of the possible risks that my family would be exposed to, both from catching the virus from me and the possibility of being stigmatised by being linked to a confirmed case.”
Meanwhile, the Grace Assembly of God church virus cluster continued to balloon and make the headlines. The number of infections connected to the cluster is 23, compared to the range of three to nine cases in the other four clusters identified here.
The day after the first two cases were announced, five more confirmed cases were linked to the church.
On Feb 13, six more cases from the cluster were confirmed, then three more, then two more.
There were no new cases on Feb 17, but the next day, three were announced. Another case linked to the church was announced on Saturday.
Based on MOH’s updates, four of the cases linked to the church reported symptoms on Feb 8 and Feb 9.
SUPPORT FROM THE COMMUNITY
Within two days of the first announcement by MOH, the church had shared on its Facebook page a blog post written by one of its members about coping with the church being a cluster, accompanied by an appeal to pray and not panic.
Case 48 recounted how he never felt alone , despite being housed in an isolation ward.
“My mobile was buzzing and ringing off the hook. My family, friends, my team and my leaders checked in and prayed constantly for me, and kept encouraging me throughout my stay in NCID,” he said, adding that he also stayed in touch with other church members through e-meetings.
Other churches also reached out, said the patient. People delivered food, groceries and care packages to those on Home Quarantine Order. The church had said in a Facebook post that its entire staff had been served with the orders.
Case 48 said it was "heart-wrenching" to see the number of cases linked to the church rise, but that the church remained sure that the "dark cloud" would pass.
“This virus can be contracted by anyone regardless of nationality, religion, race or age. I think the key thing is to observe good personal hygiene and adhere to the necessary precautions,” he said.
On Feb 14, MOH said in its daily update that a 28-year-old man linked to the church tested positive for the virus. While he, case 66, appeared to have caught the infection later than others, the man had in fact reported symptoms on Jan 29, the earliest in the cluster. He has been discharged. On Saturday, MOH announced that the latest case linked to the church, case 88, is a contact of case 66.
But even as more cases linked to the cluster have been diagnosed, so has the number of people who have recovered.
On Friday, MOH announced that four patients connected to the Church had been discharged, bringing the total to six. Among them was senior pastor Teo.
In a message on the church's website, he said that a test that showed he was negative for COVID-19 was a "wonderful piece of news". After a second, definitive test, a doctor informed him that he was a "COVID-19 survivor".
"I could go home to hug my family," he said.
Meanwhile, when asked if he knew how the virus could have spread within the church, case 48 said not everyone linked to the cluster was a staff member or congregant of the church.
“I do not wish to speculate when, where or how I or any of those cases linked to our church, could have gotten the virus,” he said.
“As a Christian, my faith in God has kept me calm and encouraged me throughout this episode. I am also confident of Singapore's robust healthcare system and that the doctors will do what's right and necessary.”