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Minister at Omaha's Countryside Community Church tells congregation he has coronavirus disease

Minister at Omaha's Countryside Community Church tells congregation he has coronavirus disease

Tri-Faith Initiative (copy)

In this May 2019 photo, the Rev. Eric Elnes, senior minister of Countryside Community Church, speaks at a Tri-Faith campus celebration.

In a church service livestreamed from his quarantine, the senior minister at Countryside Community Church in Omaha told his congregation that he has tested positive for the coronavirus disease.

Rev. Eric Elnes recently returned from a trip to Spain and learned that he had COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, late Thursday.

So far, he has only a slight cough and an elevated heart rate — no fever, headache, nausea or aches. That puts him in the 80% or so of people who health experts say are experiencing only mild illnesses from the coronavirus that shouldn’t require much in the way of medical treatment.

“I have had utterly mild symptoms,” he said in his address Sunday morning. “In fact, that’s a source of comfort, but it also should be a source of concern. The only reason why I was told to get tested is because I traveled abroad and had that one symptom.”


The Rev. Eric Elnes

Without naming him, the Douglas County Health Department announced Saturday that a 56-year-old man who had recently traveled to Spain was one of Nebraska’s latest coronavirus cases.

“I do plan to be very public about my condition, hoping that more people can learn from the experience,” Elnes said.

Those cases bring Nebraska’s total number of people who have tested positive for the coronavirus to 18, most of whom are in Douglas County.

With the contagious nature of the virus, Elnes’ diagnosis has ripple effects.

Countryside Community Church, at 13130 Faith Plaza, is part of the Tri-Faith Initiative.


A driver pulls up as the sun rises on Ash Wednesday for a drive thru-style service at Countryside Community Church at the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha on Feb. 26, 2020. 

The Tri-Faith Initiative is a cohort of three different religions and prayer spaces on one campus, including Temple Israel, Countryside Community Church and the American Muslim Institute.

According to their websites, Tri-Faith institutions announced on Friday that they are moving planned gatherings and programs online. Temple Israel and Countryside church planned to livestream worship services over the weekend. Temple Israel will be closed through at least March 29, and the American Muslim Institute through March 26.

Most of the Countryside staff and all Tri-Faith staff, clergy and board members are under a two-week quarantine — Elnes himself is living in a guest house on his property, isolated from his wife. He has not been in contact with anyone other than her since Thursday morning, he said.

At least 30 people who attended a meeting Wednesday night at Temple Israel with Elnes were told to self-quarantine for two weeks after he tested positive.

The attendees were told via email on Saturday afternoon in a letter from the Douglas County Health Department that they may be at risk “due to potential exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case.”

At Temple Israel, a rabbi, a cantor and the temple’s president are among those under self-quarantine, according to the temple’s Facebook page, as are several staff and members of the American Muslim Institute.

The attendees were told to take active monitoring steps, like taking their temperature twice a day and reporting it and any symptoms to health officials.

The meeting Wednesday was an informational session for members of the Tri-Faith community for a trip to the south of Spain in 2021.

An attendee had called an official with Countryside before the planned Wednesday meeting to ask if it was still going to occur, based on general coronavirus news and concerns. That official confirmed that the meeting would still happen.

The Tri-Faith Initiative will stream an online discussion Monday, starting at 11:30 a.m., on social connection and caring in the midst of a pandemic, with University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Ferial Pearson and Tri-Faith program director Amanda Ryan.

“The rapid implementation of quarantining Tri-Faith leadership, clergy, and staff and physical distancing among our congregations is necessary to flatten the coronavirus curve and prevent the current pandemic from worsening” Dr. Ali Khan said in a statement. Khan is chairman of the Tri-Faith board and dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “Our goal is to isolate the virus. Not isolate people.”

Elnes said that when he left for the trip, there were no travel restrictions for Spain and it was not a hot spot for coronavirus cases. He and his travel companions followed strict hygiene practices, like washing their hands frequently and using disinfectant wipes.

After returning to Omaha, he developed a slight-but-persistent cough Wednesday — not uncommon for him during allergy season — but he called a health hotline and was told that he should be tested due to his recent trip.

Elnes expects to continue leading services by livestream and releasing podcasts. He warned his congregation to take seriously the threat of coronavirus and the concept of social distancing, staying away from crowds and public spaces.

“It’s going to get difficult soon, it already should be, we already should be far more quarantined than we are,” he said. “If there’s any blessing in this situation, I hope that this will get us all clamped down and really thinking through what we’re doing and why we’re doing it when we go outdoors or go in any public space.”

More than 200 worshippers tuned in to the Sunday morning online service.

“Glad we can all be virtually together — hope and love will not be canceled,” one wrote in the video chat.

World-Herald staff writer Kevin Cole contributed to this report.

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Reporter - Education

Erin is an enterprise reporter for the World-Herald. Previously, Erin covered education. Follow her on Twitter @eduff88. Phone: 402-444-1210.

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