A COVID-19 variant of concern has potentially spread to a third facility in a region north of Toronto, according to local public health officials.
Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU), said data from Public Health Ontario suggests that the variant is now present in the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care, formerly known as Mental Health Centre Penetanguishene.
"We have a new location now that is potentially associated with the U.K. variant. We just have to wait for that additional test result," Gardner told reporters.
"This does speak to the potential for this to be transmitting now in the community. It's really, really important that people take that to heart and behave accordingly in order to reduce your risk of being part of transmission from this new variant. If it isn't spreading readily in our community now, it may very well do so in the near future."
Further testing is required to confirm if the variant is one first detected in the United Kingdom. The facility is a 301-bed psychiatric hospital in Penetanguishene, about 150 kilometres north of Toronto.
According to Dr. Vanessa Allen, chief of microbiology and laboratory science at Public Health Ontario, the strain is more contagious and there is evidence that it causes more severe disease in some people.
Waypoint, in a notice on its website, said the outbreak is in its Horizon Program for Geriatric Psychiatry, where there are two patients and one staff member with COVID-19.
The other two facilities where the variant is present are Roberta Place Long Term Care Home in Barrie and Bradford Valley Community Care in the town of Bradford West Gwillimbury.
99 people with COVID-19 in region likely have variant
Gardner told reporters that 99 more people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the region probably have a variant of the virus, according to a positive first screening. Genome sequencing will confirm whether the variant is in fact involved in the 99 cases.
Ninety-seven of the 99 cases are associated with outbreaks at the Roberta Place and Bradford Valley.
Two of the 99 cases, however, have no established link.
WATCH | Concern mounts over variant:
One of those cases is connected to the outbreak at Waypoint Centre through a person who works there, while the other is not connected to an outbreak and the health unit is investigating that person. The 99 new cases are in addition to seven cases of the variant first detected in the U.K. that have been confirmed in the region by genome sequencing.
The data comes from an ongoing investigation, called a point prevalence study, by Public Health Ontario that is testing all positive COVID-19 samples in Ontario from Jan. 20 for three new variants of the virus. The testing involves some 2,500 samples, Gardner said.
The samples are being genetically sequenced to determine the particular variant of concern. The variants were first detected in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil.
The health unit said it is still waiting for results that will identify which variant of the virus has infected the 99 people but notes that it expects it to be a variant first identified in the U.K.
46 people have died in Roberta Place outbreak
The outbreak at Roberta Place, which Gardner described as "severe," has led to the deaths of 46 people with COVID-19 — 45 residents and one essential caregiver. A total of 127 residents and 82 staff members have tested positive. Only two residents at the home do not have the virus.
Three essential caregivers, including the one who died, three external partners and 42 household contacts of people associated with the home have also tested positive for COVID-19.
"One of the issues here is the potential for transmission in the community," he said.
"We are doing all that we can to do aggressive case and contact management and follow up with all of the identified cases and their contacts and put them into isolation and slow the spread of this new variant, the UK variant, into our community. But we do have cause for concern," he said.
Gardner said the Canadian Red Cross, Hospice Simcoe, Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre and Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital are all at the site to help the home bring the outbreak under control.
Soldiers' Memorial is doing rapid testing at the facility.
"We need to absolutely follow the stay at home order so that we can protect ourselves, those who are more vulnerable and our health care system. We need to assume that a variant of this virus is everywhere and do everything we can to drive it out," Gardner said in a news release on Tuesday.