Guam public health officials expect to release more details including what villages were touched by a cluster of COVID-19 cases involving several members of the Iglesia Ni Cristo on Guam and Saipan.
Seven of the church's Guam members have tested positive for COVID-19, District Minister Noel Gasmen confirmed to The Guam Daily Post.
"As far as I know, there are seven that's being reported to me," Gasmen said.
The confirmation comes a day after Linda Unpingco-DeNorcey, director of the Department of Public Health and Social Services, acknowledged that contact tracing was taking place among members of the Iglesia Ni Cristo. Also known as the Church of Christ, it was founded in the Philippines.
At a press briefing Monday, Unpingco-DeNorcey said Public Health has identified several areas in various villages that are "linked to patients who are (positive for COVID-19) from that event."
When the Post asked if the church's cases are being looked into as a cluster, Unpingco-DeNorcey said: "Yes. There's several places that we've identified."
The Iglesia Ni Cristo has churches in Harmon, Apra and Yigo.
Unpingco-DeNorcey, during the Monday briefing, wasn't ready to release an initial count of the number of positive cases linked to the church. She also did not specify how many persons under investigation have resulted from contact with COVID-19-positive individuals. More specific information will be available later this week, she added.
"We're still investigating this. We're trying to connect all the different types of linkages, whether they are households, or whether they are close contacts – and when I say close contacts, that will also be inclusive of people that they know or their family. And also if they're congregating in social events, and so that's what we're putting all together," Unpingco-DeNorcey said.
Gasmen said there are no reports of COVID-19 cases among congregations within other islands in the region, except Saipan, which includes a deceased member of the church.
He said he is unaware of whether positive cases on Saipan were infected after contact with members from Guam, but said he did not think this would be the case as the only ones visiting Saipan on behalf of the church are ministers. And ministers have been following government directives as well as disseminating the information to members.
Unpingco-DeNorcey said Public Health learned about and began investigating COVID-19 involving Iglesia Ni Cristo members sometime in the latter part of March, after learning about a positive case in the CNMI.
Gasmen said the church stopped chapel gatherings a few days before Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero issued her first order on social distancing, which took place on March 16. Francisco Santos, another church official, said in-church service stopped on March 14, the same day the governor declared a public health emergency.
Gasmen said he's been contacted a couple of times by Public Health officials and the church has provided contact information for individuals at those times.
He said Public Health did not contact the church for all of the seven Guam cases.
Gasmen said a basic church doctrine requires its members to obey government directives and "love your fellow man," so they have been following orders regarding COVID-19 mitigation.
"As far as observing the regulations and directives of the government, we can (assure) the public that the church in its entirety and all members are part of the solution," Gasmen said. "So we're one with the government in whatever directives the government is imposing for the welfare of the community."
Unpingco-DeNorcey has urged church members and those who have had contact with Iglesia Ni Cristo churchgoers to get medical help if they experience symptoms related to the pneumonia-like disease.
Symptoms include high fever, coughing, shortness of breath and loss of taste or smell.