44 hospital staffers test positive for COVID. Experts explain how an inflatable costume could be to blame.

Korin Miller
·4 min read

Officials at a hospital in San Jose, Calif., are investigating a COVID-19 outbreak that appears to be linked to a staffer wearing an inflatable holiday costume on Christmas Day. One person at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center has died from the outbreak and at least 43 others were infected.

The worker wore an air-powered inflatable Christmas tree costume on Christmas Day in the emergency department to try to lift employee’s spirits, San Jose news station KNTV reports. Forty-four staffers in the hospital’s emergency department tested positive for COVID-19 between Dec. 27 and Jan. 1, a publicist for the medical center tells Yahoo Life, although it’s unclear whether the person wearing the costume also had the virus.

The woman who died was a registration clerk who worked in the emergency department, according to KNTV.

The hospital, which has banned this type of costume in its facilities, said in a statement to Yahoo Life that officials are “providing support to our employees during this difficult time.”

Irene Chavez, senior vice president of the medical center, also told Yahoo Life in a statement that officials are investigating whether the costume played a role in the outbreak.

“Any exposure, if it occurred, would have been completely innocent, and quite accidental, as the individual [who wore the costume] had no COVID symptoms and only sought to lift the spirits of those around them during what is a very stressful time,” she 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.”

Chavez also noted that “this was not a Kaiser Permanente–sponsored or –approved activity.”

Kaiser Permanente Skyport Medical office
Forty-four staffers in the medical center’s emergency department tested positive for COVID-19 between Dec. 27 and Jan. 1. (Getty Images)

It’s unclear whether the costume made an appearance during a holiday party or if those infected were wearing masks, but Chavez said this: “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 medical center is “undergoing deep cleaning, in addition to the already rigorous cleaning protocols in effect,” Chavez said. It is currently open for business.

The incident raises an important question: How can a costume potentially cause an outbreak?

There are many details that the hospital hasn’t shared, including whether the person wearing the costume was infected with COVID-19. “But it could be that the fan in the costume that kept it inflated may have in some way dispersed the virus out of the costume,” infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “The most plausible explanation is that the person wearing the suit was infected.”

If the person wearing the costume was infected with COVID-19, “they could have been shedding the virus to all the other members of the group who were in proximity,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. The fan could have pushed viral particles “even farther in the room than the usual 6 feet, creating a large reach,” Schaffner says.

There isn’t a lot of data on incidents similar to this, but Adalja points out that there have been case studies of outbreaks of COVID-19 linked to airflow at a restaurant. In those instances, people in the path of air blown past someone with the virus were also more likely to become infected with the virus. Based on those studies and this particular outbreak, “it’s worth thinking about where you are in relation to other people and where the airflow is,” Adalja says. “If you’re directly in the path of an air current, you need to be mindful that there is a risk of transmission,” he adds.

As for costumes, Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, tells Yahoo Life that it’s “prudent to avoid these types of outfits during the pandemic.” Schaffner agrees. “Leave them in the closet,” he says.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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