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.
Fifty-one staff members at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center's emergency department tested positive for COVID-19 between Dec. 27 and Jan. 5, according to a statement released Tuesday by the Public Health Department.
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. 5 below:
The health and safety of our patients, employees, and physicians is our highest priority. To date, we have determined 60 staff members out of those present in the Kaiser Permanente San Jose Emergency Department on Dec. 25 have tested positive for COVID-19. Working with our infectious disease specialists, we are continuing to investigate the outbreak to determine the potential causes and using contact tracing to personally notify and test anyone exposed, based on CDC and public health guidelines. Given the prevalence of COVID-19 in our communities, it is often difficult to pinpoint the specific exposure leading to COVID-19 infection.
In addition to HEPA filtering of the ventilation systems, which is known to be effective against the coronavirus, other precautions we have taken include deep cleaning and intensive disinfecting of the entire Emergency Department, including surfaces, equipment, and high touch areas in common spaces and patient care areas, and we have tested to determine these areas are sanitized. In addition, we implement regular rigorous cleaning, masks, symptom screening and temperature checks at the ED entrance; triage and appropriate isolation of anyone suspected with COVID-19; and ensure social distancing with precautions such as plexiglass cubes for patients in the waiting area.
Our thoughts are with all of our valued staff members who have been affected by this situation, and we are continuing to provide the care and support they need.
Our physicians have contacted all 70 patients who were treated and discharged from the Emergency Department on Dec. 25, and are answering any questions patients may have. COVID-19 tests are being made available to these patients, and physicians are assisting members with securing the test. All Kaiser Permanente members can also self-schedule a test online at kp.org. Due to patient privacy laws, we do not have further patient information to provide.
Because COVID-19 continues to be widespread, and is often without symptoms, 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.
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