43 staffers infected at Kaiser emergency room in San Jose, and inflatable Christmas

A coronavirus outbreak at the Kaiser Permanente San Jose Emergency Department, possibly caused by an inflatable Christmas costume, has affected 43 staff members so far, all of whom tested positive within the past week, officials said.

“A staff member did appear briefly in the emergency department on Dec. 25th wearing an air-powered costume,” said Irene Chavez, senior vice president and area manager of Kaiser’s San Jose Medical Center, in a written response to Chronicle questions. “ 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 department includes physicians, nurses, technicians and assistants, and those confirmed or suspected of having a coronavirus infection will follow isolation protocols, she added.

The Emergency Department is undergoing deep cleaning while officials conduct contact tracing, Chavez said.

“All our health care workers will be offered weekly testing for COVID-19 and expedited testing for anyone with symptoms or exposure to a person with COVID-19,” she said. “Masks are required in all areas and we are further re-configuring our processes and common spaces, such as staff break rooms, to limit any staff gatherings.”

Air-powered costumes will “obviously” no longer be allowed, she added.

“We are taking steps to reinforce safety precautions among staff, including physical distancing and no gathering in break rooms, no sharing of food or beverages, and masks at all times,” she said.

Nearly 40,000 Kaiser health care workers in Northern California have received coronavirus vaccinations to help control the pandemic, Chavez said, although it was unclear whether any of those affected by the outbreak were among them.

“The health and safety of our patients, employees, and physicians is our highest priority,” she said. “We are grateful to our employees, nurses, and physicians for their dedication to providing excellent and compassionate care every day.”

The San Jose Medical Center — and the Emergency Department — remain open, with additional staffing in place to handle an increase in COVID cases in the ER and hospital, Chavez said.

The outbreak comes amid a statewide surge in cases, with intensive care capacity dipping to 5.1% in the Bay Area on Saturday.

Hospitals have come under increased pressure as coronavirus cases continue to surge across the state. In Santa Clara County, 682 patients were hospitalized as of Jan. 1 — more than double the 293 reported a month earlier. Some ambulances in the county have had to remain outside outside emergency rooms for hours, waiting for a bed to open up.

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jtucker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jilltucker

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