Super-spreader Sinterklaas? 18

Hemelrijck elderly home in Mol, Belgium. Image: ERIC LALMAND – AFP

Super-spreader Sinterklaas? 18 dead at Belgium nursing home after visit by corona-infected Santa

Belgium’s 19,158 recorded Covid19-related deaths ranks among the world’s worst in terms of fatalities per capita.

Super-spreader Sinterklaas? 18

Hemelrijck elderly home in Mol, Belgium. Image: ERIC LALMAND – AFP

Almost 160 people linked to a care home in Belgium may have been infected with Covid-19, with 18 succumbing to the disease, after a “stupid” visit by a volunteer dressed as Santa Claus, who turned out to be a carrier.

The tragedy struck Hemelrijck, a large assisted-living facility in the Mol municipality, which serves as a home to 169 elderly residents.

The virus spread like wildfire, affecting 121 residents and 36 staff and claiming 18 lives in three weeks.

Widespread anger has been directed at the management of the care home, who were accused of misleading the public in an effort to contain the scandal.

The suspected culprit is the son of one of the residents, who frequently volunteered at Hemelrijck and was a trusted person there.

On December 4, dressed as St. Nicolas, he came to spread seasonal cheer but tragically ended up spreading the coronavirus instead.

The Santa reportedly spent time in various common areas of the facility mingling with the elderly people there. Three days later, the man, who lives in the neighboring Balen municipality, developed symptoms of Covid-19 and subsequently tested positive.

Local authorities rushed to contain the outbreak and quarantine those affected, with Mol Mayor Wim Caeyers “assuring” the public that, even though the visit had not been coordinated with the Covid-19 response authorities, guidelines on how to mitigate risks had been followed.

Hi version of events, however, soon turned out not to be true.

Photos from the event clearly showed ‘St. Nicholas’ and another volunteer dressed as Black Pete – a traditional Christmas character in Belgium – standing close to residents, some of whom weren’t wearing face masks. The mayor blamed those in charge of Hemelrijck for misleading him.

“We realize that the management organized this with the best of intentions and did try to respect the measures,” adding that there would clearly have been better options when it came to how to mark Christmas. “But what’s done is done.”

Privileged treatment

Playing fast and loose with the facts and failing to communicate properly are not the only reasons people are angry with the nursing home’s management.

The man’s visit came at a time when regular visits from family members of residents were banned due to the Covid-19 threat, and many questioned the privileged treatment accorded him.

The volunteer has since been slated social media.

The municipality where he lives, though, has called for a stop to the public shaming, saying the man was very upset over the developments.

“The council is clear in this: bullying, in whatever form, cannot and should not happen.”

Evidence points to a single source

One of Belgium’s top virologists, Marc Van Ranst from the KU Leuven University, said the outbreak seemed too large-scale even for a superspreader event.

The evidence, though, points to a single source.

Laboratory tests identified four different strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus at the care home, but the majority of infections came from just one of them, the same that afflicted the unfortunate Santa.

Van Ranst said while the visit was clearly a “stupid idea,” the case stresses how crucial proper ventilation is to reduce viral load, he added.

With so many workers affected by the virus, there is now a shortage of people who can provide care to Hemelrijck residents.

The mayor has asked the Red Cross and the military to deploy helpers and has also asked for assistance from Antwerp province in which the town of Mol is located.

The Covid-19 situation is relatively under control in Belgium at the moment, after a peak of detected infections passed in late October.

But the small nation’s 19,158 recorded deaths has ranked among the world’s worst in terms of fatalities per capita.

Its vaccination campaign launches next week.