Inside a Jacksonville church’s discovery of an outbreak at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic

'This was a classic superspreader event, and it was before we knew that it was here'

This was a classic superspreader event, and it was before we knew that it was her.'

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Members of the Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church choir have not met together in person in months. The fear of the coronavirus entering the sanctuary and infecting members closed the San Marco church’s doors on March 8.

It wasn’t until months later that church members realized several of them had experienced symptoms of the virus -- possibly months before Florida reported its first cases.

Hendricks Avenue Baptist Minister of Music and Worship Tommy Shapard had the most severe case, spending seven days in a Baptist Health hospital in late March. He was admitted to the hospital on March 25 after more than a week of upper respiratory issues and released a week later on April 1.

“I was in such bad shape. They were anticipating that they might have to resuscitate me,” Shapard said. “My heart could have gone out, and they would have had to try to, you know, bring me back.”

When Amy Quinn, a member of the choir that Shapard directs, heard about his illness, a light bulb went off. Quinn was just starting to feel better from an illness of her own that started in early February.

“On Feb. 1, I went to work, and all of a sudden, I had a headache, started coughing. I left work that evening, went to bed early and woke up at 1:30 with paramedics in my bathroom. It was crazy,” Quinn said.

The emergency room doctor chalked up the episode to vasovagal syncope, which occurs when a person faints because their body overreacts to certain triggers, and told her to visit her primary care physician.

“I went and saw my primary -- no fever but just this really bad cough, trouble breathing,” Quinn said. “So they put me on antibiotics and a major cough syrup. That cough prolonged for several weeks, and I went back to my primary several weeks later because it had not dissipated.”

When Shapard tested positive and was hospitalized for the coronavirus in late March, Quinn decided to get tested for COVID-19 antibodies.

“Lo and behold, in June, when I finally got my antibody test, I tested positive for the antibodies,” Quinn said.

She wasn’t the only one. So did handbell choir members Art Martz and Lindsay Bergstrom.

Martz was sick at home with a fever for weeks, beginning in early March.

“I had strongly suspected that it was COVID with everything else that was going on. But it wasn’t until probably the second week in April that I was able to actually get antibody tests as part of a regular checkup, and it came back positive,” Martz said. “I was not at all surprised because I was pretty certain that I had had it.”

Bergstrom didn’t come to choir practice once in March because she was feeling so sick, too. Months later, she got tested for any sign of the virus.

“Sure enough, I had antibodies,” Bergstrom said.

All four church members provided documents showing their positive results for COVID-19 antibodies.

Shapard said, as members began to meet virtually, they discovered at least seven church members tested positive for the virus and 14 other members, who were sick in February and March, tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies.

“One-by-one positive results came back, totaling 14 people positive with antibodies (6 from the congregation, 6 in the choir, and 2 in handbells),” Shapard wrote in a Facebook post. “Were we all infected at the same time in the same place? I almost for certain can say no, we were not. But were most of our cases connected through spreading it to one another over time. Yes, most likely many of us spread it to one another over a period of time.”

Hey everyone, you all know my story. It has saturated the local TV market in Jacksonville and your timeline (I’m so...

Posted by Tommy Shapard on Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Dr. Elizabeth Ransom, chief physician executive of Baptist Health, said they have found cases within the health system in which patients who tested positive began exhibiting symptoms as far back as February -- before the Florida Department of Health reported the state’s first cases of COVID-19.

“As we look back retrospectively, there are a lot of people who had symptoms consistent with COVID, and either testing wasn’t available or it wasn’t being thought about that early on, and then presumably did have COVID,” Ransom said.

According to Shapard, the majority of the church members who tested positive for the virus or antibodies were asymptomatic. They all experienced different symptoms related to the coronavirus, and two of more than a dozen members were severely ill to the point they needed to be hospitalized.

Shapard is still experiencing health impacts after being infected with the coronavirus. Others said they have fully recovered or hardly experienced any side effects of the virus. Three of those who tested positive for antibodies have donated their convalescent plasma -- a donation that could help patients currently fighting the infection.

Since March 15, Hendricks Avenue Baptist has streamed its worship services online. In the August report from the church’s Coronavirus Task Force, Interim Pastor Matt Cook wrote: “At the advice of the medical professionals on our task force, and based on those numbers, the task force unanimously concluded that we are not yet ready to regather.”

About the Author:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.