Santa visit blamed for mass infection at Belgian nursing home

Man dressed as St Nicholas may have caused 75 residents and staff to test positive

Belgian authorities are investigating a Santa visit to an elderly care home as a possible Covid-19 mass spreading event after 75 residents and staff tested positive in the wake of the festive event.

A man dressed as St Nicholas visited the care home to cheer up residents and hand out presents, a “Sinterklaas” tradition that was widely cancelled or moved online across the country due to the pandemic.

"The man did not feel ill at the time of the visit, but according to test results turned out to be infected and even a super spreader," local mayor Wim Caeyers said in a statement.

Since the visit to the Hemelrijck care home in Mol, in the province of Antwerp, 61 residents and 14 staff have tested positive for the disease, according to the local council.

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It condemned the care home management as “totally irresponsible” after photographs emerged of the event showing St Nicholas failing to keep appropriate distance from residents, who were not wearing masks, which caused consternation among relatives.

‘Seemed harmless’

One resident who was already in palliative care before testing positive has died. Another with severe symptoms is receiving respiratory therapy, while several others are suffering from fever, the local council said.

“This issue immediately highlights the personal dilemma facing everyone at the end-of-year celebrations. As the son of a resident, the St Nicholas was a trusted person for the residential care centre, so it seemed to be harmless,” Mr Caeyers said. “Hopefully each of us will make the right decisions in the coming weeks.”

A spokesman for the care home management company Armonea said the Santa only visited common spaces and did not go room to room in the care home, contrary to earlier reports.

“A nursing home volunteer dressed as St Nicholas probably caused infections inside the establishment,” a spokesman said. “During this visit the St Nicholas of course always kept his mask on.”

Death toll

Definitive proof as to whether the Santa was the source of the infections requires “in-depth scientific investigation”, according to the local council.

Some 64 per cent of deaths from Covid-19 in Belgium in the first wave were nursing home residents, many of whom never received hospital treatment, contributing to one of the world's worst death tolls from the disease.

Infections are now rising again in the country after a curfew and the closure of bars and restaurants helped curb a coronavirus surge in the autumn.

In the neighbouring Netherlands, the government is expected to impose a "hard" lockdown for the first time by closing all non-essential shops until January 19th, along with schools and most contact businesses, after infections jumped 50 per cent in a week with nearly 10,000 new cases registered on Sunday alone.

The Dutch government has resisted strict lockdowns in the past, opting to keep shops open and rely on distancing advice over prohibitions, but has been forced to act due to the surge in cases and pressure on hospitals.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times