Tree costume suspected in deadly COVID-19 outbreak at California hospital

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An employee in an inflatable tree costume may have caused a COVID-19 super-spreader event at a hospital in California, where one person has now died and 43 other staffers have been infected since Christmas Day.

The costume included two air-circulating fans that may have spread virus-infected droplets at a gathering of emergency-room staff, according to a statement from the Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center in San Jose, Calif.

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A total of 44 staff have tested positive since the first case was detected on Dec. 27, the hospital told various media outlets. The outbreak “may” have been connected to an “air-powered costume,” a hospital official told ABC 7 News.

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The outbreak was initially reported on Saturday and a woman died of the virus on Sunday. The woman who died was a registration clerk in the ER, NBC Bay Area reports.

The hospital says it will not release further information out of respect for the late staff member.

Officials have not confirmed that the costume was the source of the outbreak, though they say it’s likely.

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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,” said Irene Chavez, senior vice president and area manager of the hospital. “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.”

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NBC News reports that the costume was an inflatable Christmas tree with a smiling face and a red nose.

Several companies make costumes resembling the one in the photo, and it can be purchased through many retailers including Amazon and Walmart. Product descriptions show that the costume features two battery-operated fans: one to suck in air and the other to blow it out the other side.

It’s unclear who exactly made the costume in question.

The costumed individual was “well-intentioned” but acted “without advance notice or approval,” Chavez told the Washington Post.

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Infected staff have been isolated and the hospital is conducting a thorough investigation, including contact-tracing to determine whether any patients were exposed.

The ER outbreak comes at a time of crisis in California, where coronavirus cases are surging and hospital beds are filling up.

More than 26,530 people have died from the virus in California, making it the third state to exceed 25,000 COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic, behind New York with nearly 38,000 deaths and Texas with more than 27,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

More than 351,000 Americans have died of the virus to date.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

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Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.