1 dead, 44 emergency staff at San Jose hospital infected with COVID-19; inflatable Christmas costume may be to blame

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- Kaiser Permanente is investigating a COVID-19 outbreak that has killed one and infected dozens of employees at a San Jose hospital after Christmas.

The hospital told ABC7 News that the spread "may" have been connected to an employee who appeared briefly in the emergency department wearing an "air-powered costume" on Christmas Day.

Forty-four staff members at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center's emergency department tested positive for COVID-19 between Dec. 27 and Jan. 3, Irene Chavez, senior vice president and area manager of the hospital, said in a statement.

The staff member who died passed away from COVID-19 complications and was working in the emergency department on Dec. 25, the hospital confirmed with ABC7 News on Sunday night. Out of respect for the patient's family and privacy, hospital officials are not releasing more information.

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"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," Chavez 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."

We asked UCSF infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong about how an inflatable costume could contribute to the spread of the virus.

"These random air currents from the leak, in concert with the random movements creates an unpredictable flow," said Chin-Hong. "Airflow on droplets can give these droplets super powers, make them smaller and lighter, and keep them suspended in the air and potentially blow them around. That's what we call aerosol generation."

As for vaccinations, the emergency department staff at the hospital was the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine less than 10 days ago. The hospital says they "would not be expected to have reached immunity when this exposure occurred. It is important not only for everyone to get vaccinated, but to receive the required two doses of vaccine to be protected."

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The hospital adds that the emergency department is still open and safe to receive care. All areas of the department are undergoing a deep cleaning along with routine cleaning. . An ongoing investigation and contact tracing among staff and patients are underway.

"Obviously, we will no longer allow air-powered costumes at our facilities," Chavez told ABC7 News. "At the same time, we are taking steps to reinforce safety precautions among staff, including physical distancing and no gathering in break rooms, no sharing of food or beverages, and masks at all times."

The hospital first reported 43 staff members had tested positive on Saturday. A day later, officials on Sunday afternoon said the number of infected emergency employees rose to 44.

Read the hospital's full statement from Jan. 2 below:

"The health and safety of our patients, employees, and physicians is our highest priority. We have determined that 43 staff members at the Kaiser Permanente San Jose Emergency Department have tested positive for COVID-19 between Dec. 27 and Jan. 1. We will ensure that every affected staff member receives the care and support they need. Using our infection prevention protocols, we are investigating the outbreak and using contact tracing to personally notify and test any staff or patients who were exposed during this time period based on CDC and public health guidelines. We are also moving quickly to test all emergency department employees and physicians for COVID-19. Employees confirmed to have COVID-19 or suspected of having COVID-19 due to symptoms will not come to work, adhering to COVID-19 isolation protocols as per Kaiser Permanente and CDC guidance.

The Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center is open and safe to receive care. All areas in the Emergency Department are undergoing deep cleaning, in addition to the already-rigorous cleaning protocols in effect. All our health care workers will be offered weekly testing for COVID-19 and expedited testing for anyone with symptoms or exposure to a person with COVID-19. Masks are required in all areas and we are further reconfiguring our processes and common spaces, such as staff break rooms, to limit any staff gatherings.

We are grateful to our employees, nurses, and physicians for their dedication to providing excellent and compassionate care every day. Nearly 40,000 Kaiser Permanente health care workers in Northern California have already received COVID-19 vaccinations, with more continuing each day, taking us a step closer to controlling the pandemic. Even as the vaccine is beginning to be provided in our communities, given the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community we are all still vulnerable and it remains critical for everyone to continue using the methods to help protect ourselves and others - especially masks, hand washing, avoiding gatherings, and social distancing."


Stay with ABC7 News for this developing story.

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