COVID outbreak spreads to more staff at San Jose hospital

The number of confirmed COVID cases associated with an outbreak at a South Bay hospital has risen to at least 60 workers, according to officials. 

The positive cases are all employees at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center. One of them has died from the virus. 

The county's information shows that there's been an increase of 16 cases from Sunday, when the hospital confirmed that 44 staffers were infected.

Irene Chavez, the hospital's senior vice president and area manager, said the outbreak is believed to be tied to a staff member wearing an inflatable Christmas tree costume on Christmas Day. The costume had an internal powered fan to keep its shape. 

The costume's fan likely blew coronavirus particles into the facility, something Chavez characterized as "completely innocent and quite accidental." The staff member had no symptoms at the time.

The county public health department said the outbreak is "a stark reminder that COVID-19 can be so easily transmitted through the air and that even letting your guard down for a moment can have consequences."

Nancy DeArmon told KTVU that she went to the emergency department on Dec. 27 for what she thought was a heart issue. Unknown to DeArmon, her visit was just two days after the medical center employee is suspected of spreading the virus. 

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"Where they wheeled me back, I went to the right, I went where there was non-covered room separating us," the woman said. 

DeArmon underwent extensive cardiac testing and doctors only found a pinched nerve. But while she was there for hours, she said she noticed a lot. 

"Instead of the normal nurse stations, off right by where the curtains are like against the hall, they had food out and the lady there was eating food without a mask," DeArmon claims. 

She said she was wheeled back and forth by the open-desk area for tests. 

"When I was in my room I was masked but going to the area to get the radiology, I didn't have a mask on," she recalled. 

She said a nurse told her that hospital employees have not yet received their vaccinations. Though her employer provides free testing, DeArmon is worried about COVID exposure.

Veteran medical malpractice trial attorney Niley Dorit said patients do have certain rights. 

"If it's unreasonable or careless then they can become responsible for injuries or illnesses that patients or other suffer in the hospital. You have to show that the unreasonable thing that they did is what caused you to get sick," said Dorit.

A person has to prove they were infected at the hospital with the virus and it may take days for symptoms to show. Even if they can prove that, some hospitals, including Kaiser Permanente, require patients to bypass the court and submit to an authorization process. Damages are capped at $250,000, even if the patient dies. 

"Whether you're 80 years old, 2 years old, or a newborn," said Dorit.

Employees must also arbitrate but have CalOSHA to intervene and fine violators.

In a written statement, Kaiser Permanente said it has contacted all 70 patients that visited the emergency room on Christmas Day, but said nothing about patients who visited on the days following the detection of COVID.