44 workers contaminated on the Kaiser emergency room in San Jose and the inflatable Christmas costume may very well be in charge
A coronavirus outbreak in the Kaiser Permanente emergency room in San Jose, possibly caused by an inflatable Christmas costume, has so far affected 44 employees, all of whom have tested positive since December 27th.
“A member of staff appeared briefly in the emergency room on December 25th in an air-powered suit,” said Irene Chavez, senior vice president and area manager of Kaiser San Jose Medical Center, in a written response to questions from The Chronicle. “Any exposure, if it had occurred, would have been completely innocent and quite random as the person did not have COVID symptoms and was just trying to lift the spirits of those around them during a very stressful time.”
The department that undergoes a thorough cleaning includes doctors, nurses, technicians, and assistants. The hospital did not provide how many people were in quarantine on Sunday because of the outbreak.
Regarding the patient impact, Chavez said in her statement that hospital officials are investigating and using contact tracing to notify all exposed individuals, including patients and staff.
“All of our healthcare workers are offered weekly testing for COVID-19 and expedited testing for those with symptoms or exposure to someone with COVID-19,” she said. Any employees who have been confirmed to have COVID-19 or are suspected of developing the disease will not come to work, she said.
Air-powered costumes, which are inflated by mini air pumps to create a balloon effect around the body, will “obviously” no longer be allowed, she added.
Experts told The Chronicle the virus could have spread through the department in a number of ways.
It is “certainly plausible” that the airflow was infected with the costume, said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, Professor of Medicine and Infectious Disease Expert at UCSF. He pointed to a recent study in South Korea that explained how airflow in a restaurant causes infection between people sitting much further than three feet apart.
Chin-Hong said the inflatable costume may not have been sealed perfectly, allowing air – and droplets – to be pushed in different directions. In such circumstances, the person wearing the costume would not have to become infected with the coronavirus to pose a problem, he said.
“They just act tremendously as a means of moving air,” said Chin-Hong. “It’s like a fan that is multidirectional and random.”
The virus could also have spread as people responded to the costumed employee: Others may have felt encouraged to approach and let go of their guard, said Chin-Hong, who said he had no firsthand knowledge of the Incident.
“We’re so hungry for joy – you see something like this and somehow forget that you’re in COVID time, even in the emergency room,” he said.
Infections could take root without a direct connection to the costume. Kim Prather, professor of atmospheric chemistry at UC San Diego, said there are many examples of people catching the virus indoors like an emergency room, even without anything inflatable moving.
Separately, Prather said the San Jose incident appears to be linked to airborne transmission of the virus – an issue she is investigating. The virus can “spread like cigarette smoke,” she said.
“There is no other way (44) than to catch him through the air,” said Prather. “This is just one more piece of evidence that air matters. I would focus less on the poor person who had air in their costume. “
Chavez said Kaiser is taking “steps to tighten security precautions among employees, including physical distancing and no gathering in break rooms, no sharing of food or drinks and masks.”
When asked if all employees were wearing masks when the employee in the inflatable costume appeared, Chavez simply said that “masks and appropriate PPE are required throughout our facilities.” There were no hospital-sponsored meetings that day, she said.
Nearly 40,000 Kaiser healthcare workers in Northern California received coronavirus vaccinations to help keep the pandemic under control, Chavez said, although it was unclear whether any of those affected by the outbreak were among them.
“The health and safety of our patients, staff and doctors is our top priority,” she said. “We are grateful to our employees, nurses and doctors for their commitment to excellent and compassionate care every day.”
The San Jose Medical Center – and the emergency room – will remain open, with additional staff to handle an increase in COVID cases, Chavez said.
The outbreak is occurring in a nationwide spike, with ICU capacity in the Bay Area at 8.4% on Sunday.
The surge in the coronavirus continues to put pressure on hospitals across the state. In Santa Clara County, 689 patients were hospitalized on Jan. 2 – more than double the number a month earlier. Some ambulances in the county had to stay outside the emergency rooms for hours waiting for a bed to open.
Jill Tucker, Tatiana Sanchez, and JD Morris are contributors to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] Twitter: @jilltucker, @TatianaYSanchez, @thejdmorris