At least 98 residents and 20 staff have been infected with COVID-19 at a Belgian nursing home following a visit from a man dressed up as Santa Claus in what is being called a likely ‘superspreader’ event by local authorities.
According to local media, the man, who is a son of one of the residents, originally visited the Hemelrijck residential nursing home in Mol on December 4, two days before the Benelux holiday of Sinterklaas, in what was meant to be a morale booster for the home’s residents. While at the time he didn’t show any symptoms, days later he tested positive for COVID-19.
The string of infections was later reported by the municipality on Saturday.
“The decision to have the Sint [Santa Claus] come by was taken to offer the residents some relaxation in this mentally stressful crisis,” the municipality wrote in a statement posted to their website. “The man did not feel ill at the time of the visit, but after the test, he turned out to be infected and a super spreader.”
As health authorities conduct laboratory tests to definitively know whether the Santa Claus was in fact the source of the infections, citizens and the local government have expressed outrage at Armonea’s (the company that runs the center) decision to allow the man to visit in the first place.
Armonea representatives originally claimed that Santa Claus had kept a safe 1.5 meter distance from residents the entire time, and that all residents had been masked. Photos from the event tell a different story. In multiple photos, the man, along with someone else dressed as ‘Black Pete,’ can be seen side-by-side with unmasked residents. Not only was the visit irresponsible, but it was also most likely prohibited under current coronavirus regulations, Mol Mayor Caeyers told regional broadcaster RTV.
In an update to their original statement posted on Sunday, municipal authorities minced no words when it came to Armonea, and blasted the company for misrepresenting the details of the event.
“When requesting information, the municipal council received incorrect details from the management of the Hemelrijck residential nursing home about the circumstances in which the Sinterklaas activity took place,” they wrote. “We deeply regret this. As a municipal council, we want to convey the most nuanced and correct story possible to our residents. After receiving and viewing several photos, we have to conclude that this goes much further than an error of judgment and that it is more a question of a totally irresponsible organization.”
“The Hemelrijck residential nursing home of the Armonea group received Sinterklaas [Santa Claus] without first getting advance approval from the crisis committee,” they added. “The city council would never have approved this action if we had been informed in advance.”
Belgium already has the highest deaths per million in the world, a grim milestone that has been partially blamed on negligence when it came to the country’s vulnerable nursing homes. According to a report from Medecins Sans Frontiers, 64 percent of deaths have been those of nursing home residents, making the case an especially sensitive national topic.
As of now, one infected resident already receiving palliative care has died. Luckily however, the majority of residents are only experiencing mild symptoms, according to local media.