The story of the inflatable costume that triggered a crisis

When a staff member dressed up as a Christmas tree and strolled through a hospital’s emergency department, it was intended to spread a little festive cheer.

But it ended up spreading something much more sinister.

The inflatable costume has now been identified as the probable cause of a covid outbreak that has swept through the medical centre.

At the time of writing, 43 staff members have tested positive for the virus between December 27 and January 1 and one of those has died.

And the story has placed the hospital at the centre of media coverage across the world.

The incident happened at the Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center, in California, and the way it has been handled contains some interesting crisis communication training lessons.

Firstly, let’s look at the formal statement issued by the hospital.

Here is a taste of what it said:

"The health and safety of our patients, employees, and physicians is our highest priority. We have determined that 43 staff members at the Kaiser Permanente San Jose Emergency Department have tested positive for COVID-19 between Dec. 27 and Jan. 1. We will ensure that every affected staff member receives the care and support they need. Using our infection prevention protocols, we are investigating the outbreak and using contact tracing to personally notify and test any staff or patients who were exposed during this time period based on CDC and public health guidelines.”

As you can see, it feels pretty formal.

There are plenty of examples of the action taken to try and prevent something similar happening again, with mentions of ‘deep cleans’ and weekly testing for all workers.

Yet, interestingly, there is no mention of the role the costume played in this incident in the 323-word version of the statement.

That instead came in written responses from Irene Chavez, senior vice president and area manager of the hospital, to questions from reporters. She said the spread "may" have been connected to an "air-powered costume."

And she added: "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..

"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."

That response certainly feels open, transparent and more human. But it also introduced the ‘unusual’ element that propelled the story to a wider audience – something the hospital would have surely preferred didn’t happen and presumably the reason it was left it out of the official statement.

Would this outbreak in California have been covered in the likes of the Daily Mail and The Sun in the UK without the Christmas costume angle? It would seem doubtful at a time when there is so much to report on about covid a lot closer to home.

COVID 19 US: Blow-up Christmas costume blamed for California cases Daily Mail

AIRED OUT: Staffer wearing ‘air-powered costume with a fan’ for Christmas joke may be cause of hospital’s 43-person Covid outbreak The Sun

And there are plenty of other headlines in US publications containing words like ‘could’ and ‘may’.

It’s not clear what information the journalists revealed they already knew in their questions to Ms Chavez, but it would appear that she fell into the crisis communication trap of speculating.

Journalists will always want to know what caused an incident and will ask questions that invite you to speculate if you don’t know that information.

What’s key is that you avoid getting drawn into this and stick to the facts that you know at the time.

Speculation can lead you to dangerous territory, potentially adding further interest to a story - as was the case here - and can cause future embarrassment.

And there are already suggestions the speculation in this story may not be accurate.

One anonymous worker told the media that the outbreak was instead caused by treatments taking place “inside a room that they’re not supposed to" and a nurse has said the story "doesn't seem completely plausible".

The speculation has made a bad story worse. 

And it could have been avoided if hospital officials had stuck to the original message of “we are investigating the outbreak”. In a crisis, there is no reason to get drawn into what 'may' and 'could' have caused the incident. 


Find out more about planning for a crisis and anticipating your organisation’s vulnerabilities, by downloading our free crisis eBook.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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