COVID-19 outbreak infects 44 staff members at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center, 1 dead

Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center on Sunday said an emergency department employee died of COVID-19 complications and 44 emergency department staff members tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

"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," the hospital said in a statement sent to KTVU.

On Saturday, the hospital confirmed 43 positive COVID-19 cases among employees in the emergency department. On Sunday, the number grew by one. 

Additionally, the hospital says a holiday-spirited costume that was air-powered and worn by a staff member who was briefly in the emergency department on Christmas day may have played a role in the 44 infections.

The hospital is working to conduct contact tracing alongside notifications for patients and other staff who may have been exposed, 

"Our initial focus is on those who were in the Emergency Department on Dec. 25,"  Kaiser San Jose senior vice president and area manager Irene Chavez, said in a statement to KTVU.

One patient who entered the emergency department on Dec. 26 and came in contact with more than a dozen staff members during her six-to eight-hour hospital visit, told KTVU she was not notified by the hospital of potential exposure. 

"For $32,000 a year for my family, for my husband and I for health insurance, I can't even get an email from them telling me what I was exposed to," the woman said.

After leaving the hospital on Dec. 26 -- the day after the suspected day of exposure, but a day before any employees tested positive for COVID-19 -- the woman said she was unaware of any possible exposure.

In the week since leaving the hospital, she came in contact with people including a family member who drove her home, a doctor, a physical therapist, and shoppers at Costco.

She worries other patients are still unknowingly exposing the public to the virus.

"There are people that were exposed that have no clue, that have exposed other family members who thought that they were safe in that ER," she said.

All emergency department and physician personnel are in the process of being tested for COVID-19.

Chavez said the staff member who appeared in the emergency department wearing the air-powered costume was only trying to spread holiday cheer.

"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 went on to say, "If anything, this should serve as a very real reminder that the virus is widespread, and often without symptoms, and we must all be vigilant."

The hospital is undergoing a deep cleaning, in addition to the normal cleaning protocols amid the pandemic.

All of Kaiser's 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.