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How a Christmas costume might have infected 44 people with COVID-19

Published Jan 5th, 2021 12:06PM EST
Coronavirus Transmission
Image: sergo321/Adobe

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  • A hospital staff member wearing an inflatable costume on Christmas Day is believed to have infected 44 colleagues, one of whom died of COVID-19 complications.
  • The person wearing the costume was not infected, but the costume used a fan.
  • The theory is that the costume is responsible for spreading COVID-19, with experts saying that it’s likely a case of airborne transmission. An investigation is ongoing.

More than a year after the first novel coronavirus cases were detected in China, we’re better equipped to deal with people who catch the novel coronavirus. Health measures in place can reduce transmission risk, and several therapies can prevent complications and save lives. The first three vaccines are rolling out worldwide, and there’s hope that they will help to end the pandemic. But the world still has several major COVID problems.

First of all, the US and some European countries are still dealing with a record wave of infections, with cases and deaths soaring after the holidays. Two recently identified mutations might pose additional problems, as they’re driving infections at an increased rate. One of them might threaten vaccine effectiveness.

On top of that, we’re all prone to making mistakes. The latest example comes from a hospital in San Jose, where an outbreak involving 44 staff members has been traced to an unusual superspreader.

An employee at the hospital wore an inflatable costume on Christmas. Within days, 44 people had tested positive for COVID-19, and one had died. They weren’t infected by touching the costume, but rather, the fan powering the costume might be the culprit, as it could have spread droplets and aerosols around.

Per The New York Times, the employee wore the costume “briefly” in the emergency department of the Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center. The hospital did not say how long the employee had worn the costume in the emergency department or whether any patients were infected.

The hospital began an investigation as 44 people tested positive from December 27th through January 1st. A person who was working on Christmas Day died of COVID-19 complications shortly afterward.

It’s also unclear whether any of the infected staff members received the vaccine before contracting COVID-19, according to The Times. NBC reports that some of the infected staff had received the first dose. Vaccines require at least two weeks to elicit an immune response, however. Infection is possible right after inoculation.

The air-powered suit was holiday-themed, likely a Christmas tree costume with a red nose, a smile, and a large pair of eyes. The Times explains that inflatable costumes are powered by a battery-operated fan that sucks air into the suit, so it keeps its shape. According to the hospital’s spokesperson Irene Chavez, the investigation is looking into “whether the costume, which did have a fan, was a contributing factor.” Such costumes are now banned.

“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,” Chavez said.

An expert who investigated the now-famous choir transmission in March 2020 explained to The Times that airborne transmission was likely at play. “It’s kind of like the choir case,” Dr. Jose-Luis Jimenez, from the University of Colorado Boulder, said. “There is no way to infect 43 people when you’re wearing a costume other than through airborne transmission, through aerosols, because you’re inside a costume and cannot touch objects or get people infected through surfaces.”

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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