Inflatable Christmas tree costume linked to 44 COVID-19 infections and one death at California hospital

An air-powered, inflatable Christmas tree costume worn by a staffer at a California hospital could be linked to an outbreak that infected more than 40 people, killing one.

Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center said the staffer wore the costume, which included a fan that could have spread infected droplets through the air, in the emergency department on Christmas Day. The infections were reported from Dec. 27 to Jan. 1.

Irene Chavez, the hospital's senior vice president, called the incident "a highly unusual situation involving a well-intentioned staff member" acting alone with no approval from supervisors.

"Any exposure, if it occurred, would have been completely innocent and quite accidental," Chavez said. "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 the hospital reinforced to staff that devices such as air-powered costumes are not allowed. The hospital is taking steps to reinforce safety precautions among staff, including physical distancing that includes a ban on gathering in break rooms and sharing of food or beverages and a requirement of masks at all times, Chavez said.

“Using our infection proven protocols, we are investigating the outbreak and using contact tracing to personally notify and test any staff or patients who were exposed,” Chavez said.

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The hospital announced that an employee working in the emergency department on Christmas Day died from COVID-19 complications.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by this terrible loss," Chavez said. "We are providing support to our employees during this difficult time."

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California, which fended off the worst of the surge early in the pandemic, has seen infections race out of control. Despite some of the nation's tightest restrictions, the state routinely sets new marks for infections and deaths, and it began the new year reporting a record 585 deaths in a single day.

Chavez stressed that the emergency department was undergoing a deep cleaning and that the hospital is open and safe for patients. All health care workers will be offered weekly testing for COVID-19, with expedited testing for anyone with symptoms or exposure to a person with COVID-19.

Employees confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19 because of symptoms will not come to work, Chavez said.

“We will ensure that every affected staff member receives the care and support they need,” Chavez said. “The health and safety of our patients, employees and physicians is our highest priority.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID: Costume linked to California hospital outbreak, 1 dead