A Covid-19 outbreak at San Jose’s Kaiser Permanente Medical Center that infected dozens of staffers and killed one may have stemmed from an air-inflated Christmas tree costume that an employee donned to spread holiday cheer.
Hospital officials say they’re investigating the Christmas Day incident as a potential cause of the 44 coronavirus cases recorded between Dec. 27 and New Year’s Day. They suspect that a fan inside the red-nosed holiday ensemble effectively aerosolized virus-laden droplets, spewing them throughout the emergency department.
This is the air powered costume an employee wore in the Emergency Dept.of Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center Xmas day to spread cheer. Turns out employee unknowingly had covid , now 43 employees have covid .Kaiser investigating if costume blower helped spread the virus. pic.twitter.com/DLLi8z5e2T
— Marianne Favro (@mariannefavro) January 3, 2021
Kaiser announced late Sunday that the outbreak took the life of a woman who staffed the ER reception desk. In a broadcast aired that same day, NBC Bay Area quoted employees who described the loss as devastating.
Kaiser Senior Vice President Irene Chavez told the Washington Post that the situation is “highly unusual,” and said the costumed staffer acted on their own without notice or approval. “Any exposure, if it occurred,” she told the newspaper, “would have been completely innocent, and quite accidental, as the individual had no Covid symptoms.”
An unnamed Kaiser employee quoted by NBC, however, suggested another possible cause, saying the outbreak may have been linked to the hospital conducting respiratory treatments in a room that shouldn’t have been used for that purpose.
The deadly outbreak at Kaiser in San Jose is yet another reminder that we have to remain hyper-vigilant ? in stopping the spread of the virus.
My heart goes out to the frontline workers and their families?. Wishing everyone a speedy recovery?https://t.co/I3Jc9jRqf4
— Evan Low (@Evan_Low) January 4, 2021
The Kaiser outbreak comes amid a post-holiday explosion in coronavirus cases throughout California, where hospitalizations rose by 7 percent in just this past week, forcing doctors to ration care for patients with all kinds of health conditions.
Monday-44 Kaiser permanente employees at the San Jose facility on hospital parkway have tested positive for covid 19. We have also just learned one of them has died @kron4news pic.twitter.com/5oC8V70eqG
— Will Tran (@KRON4WTran) January 4, 2021
In Santa Clara County, public health officials say hospitals have run out of non-intensive-care space while just 10 percent of ICU beds are available as the cumulative case count surpasses 74,000 and death toll approaches 750.
By Dec. 31, healthcare providers in the county had received 40,605 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 54,200 doses of Moderna’s, plus additional deliveries directly to multi-county entities, such as Kaiser and Sutter Health. Additional shipments are expected this week, including second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Thousands of healthcare workers and medical first responders have been vaccinated since mid-December, and those who received their first doses of the vaccine will receive the second dose next week, said Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, who’s in charge of Covid-19 testing and vaccines for the county’s public health division.
The county is currently in Phase 1a of the vaccine rollout, which includes healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities.
Once vaccinations are complete, it will move on to Phase 1b, which includes frontline workers such as law enforcement, agricultural workers, grocery store staff and others. People aged 75 years and older are also included in this phase.
Fenstersheib said it will be “several months” before the county moves to Phase 2, where everyone not included in the previous phases will be able to get vaccinated.
“As we’re vaccinating people, you still need to wear your mask and still need to follow all the social distancing requirements,” he said. “Having some people vaccinated is not a time to take off your mask and act like the virus is under control.”
Erik Chalhoub and Michael Moore contributed to this report.