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How an Inflatable Christmas Costume May Have Led to a Massive COVID-19 Outbreak

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There was a festive celebration at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center over the holidays. A healthcare worker wore an inflatable costume in the shape of a Christmas tree to lighten the mood; the facility has struggled with a daunting rise in new coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.

It was a well-meaning gesture that may have done more harm than good. The costume contained a built-in fan, which may have contributed to the spread of respiratory particles containing the coronavirus. According to the facility, 51 staff members tested positive for COVID-19 between December 27th and January 5th. One employee working a shift on Christmas day also died of COVID-19 complications. The employee who wore the costume was asymptomatic, and it isn’t clear whether they were infected with the coronavirus at the time. 

Celebrating the Holidays in the ER

An emergency room worker reportedly wore the inflatable costume to work on Christmas Day. Hospital administrators are currently looking into the incident to see if the costume was to blame. Several staff members received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine before the outbreak occurred, but officials say it’s unlikely that they would have full immunity from the virus.

Inflatable costumes can be a danger during the pandemic. You may see them in front of grocery stores and car dealerships, but they can be a recipe for disaster in indoor settings. The World Health Organization advises against the use of table and pedestal fans indoors when people from outside the home are visiting during this time. Clearly, these kinds of fans shouldn’t be allowed in clinical settings.

The CDC also says that these kinds of costumes do not protect against the spread of the coronavirus. Spokeswoman Kate Grusich said, “While the CDC appreciates the creativity that some Americans have shown in protecting against COVID-19, an inflatable dinosaur suit will not provide more protection than a cloth face covering.”

As for the person who chose to wear the costume, the facility says it was an honest mistake.

Irene Chavez, the hospital’s senior vice president, told a local news outlet, “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.”

“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 added.

A Deadly Outbreak at the Worst Possible Time

For the staff at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center, the timing couldn’t be worse.

During the week of Christmas, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources said that nearly one-fifth of the country’s ICUs were 95% full or higher. As for the Bay Area where the hospital is located, ICU capacity is down to just 5.1%.

In Santa Clara County, there have been more than 74,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 750 deaths. The state of California also has the most cases in the country with 2.4 million since the start of the pandemic.

Administrators say they are in the process of doing a deep cleaning to prevent further exposure. They are also working to test all emergency room workers for the virus, while urging anyone with symptoms to stay home and self-isolate.

They are also adding more stringent safety guidelines to prohibit large gatherings and the sharing of food.

Chavez wants to prevent this kind of mishap from happening in the future, adding, “Obviously, we will no longer allow air-powered costumes at our facilities.”

The story also serves as a warning to frontline workers, reminding them to limit their risk of exposure even after they get the vaccine. “During this period, even as [the] 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.

The next time you’re thinking about spreading some cheer at work, leave your inflatable costume at home.

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