An inflatable costume worn on Christmas to cheer up patients is being investigated as the possible cause of a coronavirus outbreak – and at least one virus-related fatality – in a hospital in northern California.
At least 44 emergency department staff members at the Kaiser Permanente San Jose medical center tested positive for the virus between 27 December and 3 January, according to a statement from the hospital. One emergency department employee who had been working on Christmas “has passed away as a result of Covid-19 complications”.
The hospital is looking into whether the fan on an “air-powered” costume could have spread droplets. A staff member had briefly donned the costume in the emergency department on Christmas Day.
“Any exposure, if it occurred, would have been completely innocent, and quite accidental, as the individual had no Covid symptoms and only sought to lift the spirits of those around them during what is a very stressful time,” the hospital said. “If anything, this should serve as a very real reminder that the virus is widespread, and often without symptoms, and we must all be vigilant.”
Santa Clara county, home to San Jose, has just 27 intensive care unit (ICU) beds remaining for all of its 1.9 million residents. Like the rest of the state, the region has seen its hospitals stretched thin in the recent surge. Marco Randazzo, a Santa Clara emergency room doctor, said on 31 December that some hospitals in the region were forced to care for ICU patients in the emergency department because their ICU departments were full. “Oftentimes the only way we can move a patient to the ICU is when a Covid patient has died,” Randazzo said at a press briefing.
The emergency department at the Kaiser Permanente San Jose medical center is undergoing a deep cleaning, the hospital said, and officials were moving quickly to test all emergency department employees and physicians. None of the staff members who tested positive would return to work.
Some employees at the emergency department had received a Covid-19 vaccine just days before the incident. They had not had their second shot before they were infected.
“During this period, even as vaccine is beginning to be provided in our communities, it is crucial that everyone continue to protect themselves and each other by continuing to use masks, hand washing, avoid gatherings, and practice social distancing,” the hospital said.
Statewide, California has reported more than 2.4m coronavirus cases, with 26,635 people dead.