Leaders of a church in Kaimuki appear to have covered up a large cluster of COVID-19 infections among their congregation that emerged after an Easter Sunday service as they spread misinformation and conspiracy theories about the dangers of the vaccine.
The virus outbreak sent a number of people to the hospital, one of whom died on Sunday. Lynn Pang, 71, is among church members believed to have contracted the coronavirus in early April at a church called Unified … Hawaii. She died at the Queen’s Medical Center after being hospitalized for a month and put on a ventilator, her daughter, Wendy Li, confirmed.
Li said she tried to persuade her mother to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Pang had suffered from cancer which, along with her age, put her at high risk of serious illness and death from COVID.
But Li said her mom had been fed misinformation about the dangers of the vaccine by her church and she chose not to get it. Li said it was her understanding that there were as many as 50 known cases tied to the church, including members and their families.
Li said she barely saw or touched her mother during the pandemic, only dropping off food and medicine to minimize contact and keep her safe, all of which has added to the trauma of her death.
“It was a terrible Mother’s Day knowing that she was there on the ventilator, knowing that she was there but I likely wouldn’t have a mother soon,” she said.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser was first alerted to the cluster by a friend of Pang’s. Text messages were subsequently provided to the newspaper showing lengthy exchanges between church leaders and members who discussed the growing COVID-19 case count among the congregation and their success at evading the state Department of Health’s contact tracers. As church members worried about one another’s health and shared treatment advice, they also exchanged links to online videos and websites that claim it’s dangerous to be around people who are vaccinated and that the vaccine can cause massive bruising and sterilization in women.
Top health officials and major scientific studies have confirmed the safety of the available COVID-19 vaccines and their effectiveness at preventing serious illness and death from the virus.
On April 8, one of the first members of the church to test positive for the virus sent a group text to other members telling them that when the Queen’s COVID center calls she would tell them that she believes she contracted the virus at a Korean barbeque restaurant. “Tracie mentioned that it might not be a good idea to mention I went to church,” she wrote, later texting that the coronavirus is “being sent through a demonic wind. So rebuke it.”
Two days later, Dean Fujishima, a lead pastor at the church, shared a message he received from one of the sick members of the congregation with church leadership.
“The (health department) called today to go over my personal quarantine procedures,” the member wrote. “When asked about where I caught the virus, I just said I have no idea. They accepted my answer.”
On April 14, as the cluster of COVID-19 cases grew, one member of the church sent a text fretting about the spread of the virus.
“Doesn’t it seem like some spiritual/physical attack on the church body,” the member wrote. “Practically every family in attendance on Resurrection Sunday got hit with the virus.”
The virus is believed to have spread after at least one member of the church attended the Easter Day service with a fever, according to the text messages. The member appeared racked with guilt, apologizing for “knowingly or unknowingly partnering with any evil spirit or anything that I shouldn’t have and bringing it to the church.”
Fujishima, who also indicated in the text messages that he contracted the virus, reported later in April how his health had improved with better oxygen levels and less coughing.
“Now comes the need for wisdom and not to be led by fear,” he wrote. “We are smarter about Covid than ever before having experienced it firsthand. But we still need to do our due diligence and research what are the true facts that is being said and not being said.”
Fujishima then shared links to anti-vaccination websites whose founders have espoused a range of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus vaccine.
Fujishima and other members of the church did not respond to multiple text messages, emails and phone calls on Wednesday seeking comment. The Star-Advertiser sent a long list of questions to the church asking why leadership appears to have hidden the cluster from state health officials and seeking more information on the church’s views about the virus and vaccines, but didn’t receive a response. The church’s website only says that it is “closed until further notice.”
Cluster reports published online by the Hawaii Department of Health from the beginning of April through mid-May don’t list any coronavirus cases at worship services on Oahu. Brooks Baehr, a spokesman for the health department, said he didn’t have any information about a cluster at Unified … Hawaii. (The church spells its name with the ellipsis.) Baehr said he would alert the Disease Outbreak Control Division about the Star-Advertiser’s inquiry.
Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who is also a medical doctor and the state’s coronavirus preparedness coordinator, said he hadn’t seen any reports of a cluster at the church. He said the state’s contact tracing efforts are often thwarted by people not participating.
“People feel very self-conscious when it’s spread in one of their organizations. That adds to the challenge because people feel judged,” said Green. “It would be better instead if we all worked together on the public health solutions.”
Green said it worries him when he hears false stories about the risks of the vaccine.
“People are saying things just to create fear and doubt so that the vaccine doesn’t get used,” he said. “And that is unfortunate because irrespective of our religion or race, we should all have the opportunity to get the facts.”
While about 63% of the Hawaii population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, there’s still about half a million residents who are not vaccinated because they aren’t eligible due to their age, health issues or because they just haven’t gotten the shot. That means that the virus can spread unchecked in pockets of the population that are unvaccinated. As of Wednesday, there were 907 known active cases of the coronavirus on Oahu.
As Pang was in the hospital suffering from COVID-19 she began calling her friends and members of the congregation urging them to get vaccinated, according to Li and Pang’s close friend, Karro Yee.
“Toward the very end, she was calling everyone that she knew to try to hustle them to take the coronavirus vaccine,” said Yee. “And I think that is the message she wanted to be getting out: to know anyone can be a victim … If she could save one person, she would be happy.”
Yee said the thing she will miss the most about her friend of 50 years is their long talks.
“I could call her anytime of the day, 6 o’clock in the morning, 11 at night, and we could sit there and just chat, and there are not so many people you can do that with,” she said.