SOME 18 care home residents have now died of Covid after a visit from a superspreader Santa Claus who was infected with the virus.
Pictures show the Father Christmas – who was not aware that he was infected with coronavirus – posing with elderly residents at the residential home earlier in December.
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The death toll has since been rising throughout the month following the ill-advised event at the Hemelrijck care home in Mol, Belgium, reports VRT.
Five more residents died over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as the death toll shockingly climbed to 18.
It is reported some 121 residents and 36 staff have been infected in the local outbreak.
Lab tests are still trying to work out exactly where the infectious came from, but questions have been asked over visit from the unwittingly infected Santa.
The Santa – dressed in the traditional garb of St Nick, alongside his assistant Zwarte Piet, a character often branded racist for its use of blackface – are pictured meeting residents while wearing masks.
Care home staff hoped Santa would boost morale among residents and he reportedly did not feel unwell before the visit.
Management at the home have said the Santa and his helpers were therapists who also have access to the residents at other times.
“We’re expecting up to ten difficult days,” said Mayor Wim Caeyers.
He added: "Several laboratories are currently trying to determine the source of the infections, but I have not yet received results.
"This therefore remains uncertain for the moment."
Doctors and paramedics have been mobilized in the town of 35,000 people to help control the outbreak.
The authorities in Mol said the Santa had "visited various communal areas such as the sitting room".
"He kept his distance from the residents and wore a face covering. The residents also wore face coverings," the statement added.
But photos obtained by VRT showed residents without masks.
Mr Caeyers told VRT the visit was "made with the best intent, but it went wrong".
"It has been a very black day for the care home,” he said.
The mayor said at first it was thought that the man had followed social distancing rules.
“Initially they 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,” he said.
Jannes Verheyen, a spokesperson for Armonea, the firm which runs the home, said: "The team is very shocked by what happened, but that also makes them very motivated to get the virus out again."
But one Belgium's top virologists Marc Van Ranst, of KU Leuven university has said he doubts the Santa could have caused so many infections
Poor ventilation is much more likely the cause despite the visit being a “stupid idea”.
“Even for a super-spreader, these are too many infections at once,” he said.
Belgium was hit by a coronavirus second wave in October that saw its health system pushed to breaking point.
In response the country introduced partial lockdown measures including the closure of nonessential shops, bars and restaurants.
The country has so far recorded 637,246 cases with a total death toll of 19,089.
It has been steadily recording around 100 deaths per day since the virus returned in October, but daily cases have dropped from highs of 24,000 to around 3,000.
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