An air-powered, inflatable costume, worn by a staff member on Christmas to spread holiday cheer, may be to blame for a coronavirus outbreak that infected dozens of workers in a hospital in San Jose, Calif., a hospital spokeswoman said.
An employee wore the costume “briefly” in the emergency department at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center, the spokeswoman, Irene Chavez, said in a statement. The hospital began an investigation after 44 staff members tested positive for the coronavirus between Dec. 27 and Friday, she said.
Inflatable costumes are usually powered by a battery-operated fan that sucks air into the suit, helping it keep its shape. T. rex and sumo wrestler models are among the more popular. Some costumes cover the wearer’s face while others leave it exposed.
Ms. Chavez declined to say what kind of air-powered costume the hospital employee wore, but she described it as “holiday themed.” NBC Bay Area reported on Sunday night that it was a Christmas tree costume, with a red nose, a smile and a large pair of eyes.
As part of its response to the outbreak, Ms. Chavez said, the hospital was looking into “whether the costume, which did have a fan, was a contributing factor.” Air-powered costumes have been banned, she said.
It was unclear how long the employee had worn the costume in the emergency department. The hospital declined to say whether any patients had been infected.
With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
- When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
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- Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection into your arm won’t feel different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects does appear higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. The side effects, which can resemble the symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and appear more likely after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest some people might need to take a day off from work because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headaches, chills and muscle pain. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is mounting a potent response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
It was also unclear whether any of the infected staff members had received the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, but experts have said that it takes at least a couple of weeks for the vaccine’s protective effects to kick in. According to the hospital, 40,000 Kaiser employees in Northern California have received the first dose of the vaccine.
“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,” Ms. Chavez said of the costumed worker.
The emergency department will be deep-cleaned, Ms. Chavez said, and in addition to protocols that were already in place, employees will be offered free weekly testing.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus is primarily spread through respiratory droplets and can “sometimes be spread by airborne transmission” of both larger droplets and smaller aerosols when people “cough, sneeze, sing, talk, or breathe.”
Dr. Jose-Luis Jimenez, an aerosol expert and a professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado Boulder, helped investigate the choir outbreak in Skagit County, in which at least 53 infections and two deaths were traced to a singing practice in Washington State. In an interview on Sunday, he said that the outbreak among the staff at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center was most likely the result of airborne transmission.
“It’s kind of like the choir case,” Dr. Jiminez 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.”
The hospital is in Santa Clara County, Calif., where there have been 73,493 confirmed coronavirus cases, according to a New York Times database. There have been 2,397,923 confirmed cases across California.
More than 21,000 people were hospitalized in California on Jan. 1, according to the Times database, a 26 percent increase from two weeks earlier.