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26 Belgian retirees die after visit by volunteer Santa Claus who tested positive for COVID

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At least 26 residents of a Belgian retirement home have died since a visit by a volunteer dressed as Santa Claus who has since tested positive for COVID-19. A Flemish health official told AFP on Thursday it is not yet certain that it was the visitor who brought the coronavirus to the Hemelrijck home in Mol on December 5.

But 26 residents have died since the visit, and 85 more have tested positive for the coronavirus, along with 40 staff.

The outbreak was detected a few days after the visit, and prominent virologist Marc Van Ranst reported on Twitter that most of the infections came from the same source.  

The white-bearded, red-robed figure of Sinterklaas, the equivalent of the English-speaking world's Santa Claus, brings gifts to Belgians every December 6.

A man rides a bicycle near the elderly home WZC Hemelrijck in Mol, Belgium, on December, 14 2020, where an outbreak of coronavirus contaminations took place following a 'Sinterklaas' visit to the residents. Photo by ERIC LALMAND/BELGA/AFP via Getty Images

This year's festivities, however, have been clouded by the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Belgium particularly hard, especially at its retirement homes.

No inquiry has been launched in the absence of a formal complaint, regional health spokesman Joris Moonens said, and there is no suggestion the volunteer knew he was infected.

But a crisis manager has been appointed for Hemelrijck —  which housed 169 people before the COVID outbreak — to help staff, residents and relatives cope "in this difficult period."

Belgium has one of the highest per capita coronavirus death tolls in the world and more than half of the deceased — 11,066 people — were retirement home residents.

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