A COVID-19 case at a Toronto homeless shelter has been identified as a variant of concern, the city said on Saturday.
In a news release, the city said the case is at the Maxwell Meighen Centre, 135 Sherbourne St., a shelter funded by the city and operated by the Salvation Army, and Toronto Public Health has been informed.
According to the city, the case is the first variant detected at a homeless shelter in Toronto.
The city said the type of variant is unknown but Public Health Ontario Laboratory will conduct further tests to identify the strain.
"The City is advising the public about this case in the interest of transparency," the city said in the release.
The city said the shelter has eight cases of COVID-19. All shelter residents who have tested positive or who are close contacts of people who have tested positive have been sent to the city's isolation and recovery centre.
Testing of all residents and staff members at the shelter has begun.
The city did not say whether a resident or staff member tested positive for the variant.
According to the city, the shelter regularly supports 380 residents, but because the city has put physical distancing measures in place over the past several months, that number has been reduced to 200 residents.
In an email on Saturday, Dr. Vinita Dubey, the city's associate medical officer of health, said evidence show that variants are more highly contagious.
"At present, known variants of the novel coronavirus are believed to be more transmissible. This increases the risk the COVID-19 virus will spread between people," she said.
"Faster and wider spread of the virus makes it more likely to have higher numbers of people sick, which can increase strain on the health care system."
Advocates call news 'super alarming'
Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor with Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, said the announcement by the city is a positive move but the news itself is disturbing.
"Now is always a good time to start transparency. Very worrisome news for shelter residents, the sector, and City," he said in a tweet on Saturday.
Cathy Crowe, a street nurse, agreed, saying the news is "super alarming" given that shelters are congregate sites and lack physical distancing. She said the variant is yet another reason that shelter residents should be a priority group for vaccination.
City trying to bring outbreak under control
The city's shelter, support and housing administration is working with the public health unit and the Salvation Army to implement infection prevention and control measures at the shelter.
These measures include:
Encouraging physical distancing in all areas of the shelter, including washrooms, dining and common areas.
Ensuring the mandatory use of face coverings or masks.
Encouraging frequent hand washing.
Conducting daily symptom screening of all clients and staff.
Providing transportation to isolation and recovery sites for individuals who are awaiting results or who test positive to recover.
Conducting ongoing quality assurance site visits to confirm compliance with IPAC measures and provide direction for remediation where required.
City says 4 Toronto shelters in outbreak
As of Wednesday at 5 p.m., the last time that the city's COVID-19 numbers were updated, there were four homeless shelter outbreaks in Toronto.
In addition to the outbreak at the Maxwell Meighen Centre, there are outbreaks at Dixon Hall, Warden Woods Community Centre - Respite Services, and Seaton House.
A total of 93 shelter residents have tested positive for COVID-19. According to the numbers, 43 of those cases are at Seaton House, the city's largest shelter for men. One of the Seaton House cases is hospitalized.
Since the pandemic began, there have been 839 COVID-19 cases linked to shelter outbreaks in Toronto.
Variants can turn into 'significant public health threat'
Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city's medical officer of health, noted at a city hall news conference this week that variants are concerning.
"Variants can grow into a significant public health threat, spreading widely and with potentially overwhelming speed thanks to mutations that make the virus easier to catch," de Villa said on Wednesday.
Three types of variants have been found in Ontario: B.1.1.7, the one first detected in the United Kingdom; B.1.351, the one first detected in South Africa; and P.1, the one first detected in Brazil.
De Villa has said variants are more transmissible, they may cause more severe disease in some people and they may be able to reinfect those who have had COVID-19 but recovered. COVID-19 vaccines, however, seem to produce an immune response to the variants.
"If —as expected — variants of concern become the dominant strain in Toronto, there is an even greater likelihood of case counts increasing, given increased transmissibility is proven by science to be true," de Villa has said.
According to the Ontario health ministry, as of Friday, Toronto has 33 cases of the variant first detected in the U.K. and one case of the variant first detected in Brazil.