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UPDATE: Kaiser Permanente San Jose Emergency Room COVID Outbreak Linked To Air-Powered Costume

SAN JOSE (CBS SF) -- A COVID-19 outbreak at a South Bay hospital that infected at least 44 emergency room workers may be linked to an inflatable Christmas costume.

One emergency room employee "has passed away as a result of COVID-19 complications" amid the outbreak in the department.

In a statement released Sunday night, Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center officials confirmed the death, but did not indicate if the employee was among the 44 who have tested positive for COVID-19 since Dec. 27th.

"Out of respect for patient privacy and the family, we have no additional information to provide. Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by this terrible loss. We are providing support to our employees during this difficult time." hospital officials said in their statement.

Officials said that one of the infected staffers did "appear briefly in the emergency department on Dec. 25th wearing an air-powered costume."

The costume was reportedly an inflatable Christmas tree.

"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," the hospital said in the statement.

Officials originally confirmed the late December outbreak on Saturday evening.

In a statement to KPIX 5, Senior Vice President and Area Manager at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center Irene Chavez said the outbreak began on Dec. 27.

"We have determined that 43 staff members at the Kaiser Permanente San Jose Emergency Department have tested positive for COVID-19 between Dec. 27 and Jan. 1," Chavez said. "We will ensure that every affected staff member receives the care and support they need. Using our infection prevention protocols, we are investigating the outbreak and using contact tracing to personally notify and test any staff or patients who were exposed during this time period based on CDC and public health guidelines."

"We are also moving quickly to test all emergency department employees and physicians for COVID-19," she continued. "Employees confirmed to have COVID-19 or suspected of having COVID-19 due to symptoms will not come to work."

The hospital's emergency department has also undergone deep cleaning and the Medical Center remains open.

The outbreak comes as Santa Clara County hospitals are being pushed to the brink by a surge in COVID-19 cases. On Saturday, county health officials reported there were 1,784 new positive cases with 37 deaths and 108 hospitalizations. The county has had a 7-day rolling average of nearly 1,000 positive test results each day.

There were just 10 ICU beds available in the county of over 2 million residents as of Saturday.

A hospital official said Monday additional staff members have been given a heads up in recent days about working in the event there is a staff shortage at the San Jose hospital following the coronavirus outbreak .

All health care workers at the facility will have access to weekly testing for the virus, with expedited results for those with symptoms or exposure to someone who tested positive.

The medical center remains open at this time, according to Chavez. Masks are required in all areas of the facility and additional safety precautions prohibiting sharing of food and drinks and gathering in break rooms remain in effect.

"Even as the vaccine is beginning to be provided in our communities, given the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community we are all still vulnerable and it remains critical for everyone to continue using the methods to help protect ourselves and others -- especially masks, hand washing, avoiding gatherings, and social distancing," Chavez said.

Professor of Epidemiology at UC Berkeley Dr. Art Reingold said if the person wearing the costume was COVID positive, the motorized fan would very likely increase risk of exposure to those in the enclosed space.

"This obviously is a very unfortunate event," said Reingold. "If that person coughs or sneezes or talks and puts some virus into the air, that normally might not go very far. But the stream of air created by that pressure system could result in aerosolization, and much wider dissemination of the virus."

Jorge Escobar, Kaiser member arriving at the south San Jose facility for a coronavirus test on Monday, urged caution and self-reflection upon hearing the news of the outbreak.

"We're not perfect, you know what I mean? I think that we just gotta use common sense. We gotta be safe, you know what I mean? And think about others. Not be so selfish," said Escobar.

© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Bay City News Service contributed to this report.

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