The death toll of a coronavirus outbreak in a care home linked to a Father Christmas party for the elderly last month has reached 27.
The Mol care centre in northern Belgium had organised a December 4 visit of the beloved figure who usually spreads mirth and presents, but there is a possibility the actor who played him could have been a super spreader of Covid-19 unbeknownst to himself.
The municipality said on New Year’s Eve that a 27th person had died but the outbreak was finally stabilising.
Belgium, a nation of 11.5 million, has been badly hit by the pandemic with 19,441 deaths so far, many of them in care homes.
The volunteer dressed as Sinterklaas was welcomed in to spread Christmas cheer among the 150 residents of the Hemelrijck care home in Mol, Antwerp (pictured: residents enjoying mulled wine and oranges as Santa and his Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’) helpers visit the home)
The Mol municipality said two weeks ago the party would have been barred had the local crisis cell known about it. At the last count, the care home had 88 infections, including 42 among the staff.
Initially, the actor had been pinpointed as the source of the outbreak, but subsequent scientific research has not been fully conclusive.
Sinterklaas and his helpers in black face known as Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’) infected residents and staff at the Hemelrijck care home in Mol, Antwerp, earlier this month.
Pictures of the man dressed as St Nicholas emerged to two weeks ago and the ‘superspreader’ has been blamed for the home’s rising death toll since.
Five more elderly residents died over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and at least one was treated with oxygen.
The Father Christmas fell ill and tested positive for Covid-19 three days after visiting, prompting health officials to start testing at the home.
The home had claimed that social-distancing was observed, but the Sinterklaas was pictured standing very close to the elderly residents
Santa and his helpers chat with residents of the care home. His helpers are in black face and dressed as Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’), a controversial traditional character in the Netherlands and parts of Belgium
Mayor of Mol Wim Caeyers told local media: ‘We’re expecting up to ten difficult days. It has been a very black day for the care home.
Who is ‘Black Pete’?
The Santa’s helper character first appeared in an 1850 book by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman.
Those portraying Zwarte Piet typically put on blackface make-up and colourful Renaissance attire, in addition to curly wigs, red lipstick, and earrings.
Opponents say such depictions promote racist stereotypes, while supporters defend the helper of Sinterklaas, the white-bearded, red-robed Dutch version of St. Nicholas, as a traditional children’s character.
‘It is a very great mental strain to bear for the man that played St Nicholas, as well as for the organisers and the staff.’
But pictures of the event showed that not all residents wore masks and that Santa and his little helpers stood within two metres of the elderly.
Mr Caeyers said: ‘Initially [the care home] said that the rules had been followed, but then straight away you receive photos from the families of residents where you can see that this wasn’t the case.’
His administration has called the care home ‘a totally irresponsible organization.’
The mayor said that it will be ‘all hands on deck’ to bring the virus under control, with local health workers, the Red Cross and the Governor of Antwerp helping, following crisis talks on Sunday.
A spokesman for Armonea, the firm which manages the home, said: ‘The team is very shocked by what happened, but that also makes them very motivated to get the virus out again.’
One of Belgium’s top virologists, however, has expressed his doubts that the Santa Claus volunteer could have caused so many infections.
Marc Van Ranst, of KU Leuven university, said: ‘Even for a super-spreader, these are too many infections at once.’
Father Christmas speaks to an elderly resident. He and his helper appear to be standing closer than two metres away from her
Hemelrijck care home in Mol, Antwerp, which is run by the firm Armonea
In recent days Belgium has recorded an increase in the number of daily infections, 2,762 on Saturday and another 4,978 on Sunday
He believes that poor ventilation is much more likely the cause and that CO2 measurements should be taken by the local health officials.
Nonetheless, he added that having Santa visit during the pandemic was a ‘stupid idea.’
Belgium has the worst coronavirus deaths per million of its population in the world.
The country recorded 2,342 new coronavirus cases on Christmas day, with 51 dying from the