COVID-19 variants detected in northern Ontario health units

·3 min read

Cases of more infectious COVID-19 variants have been detected in at least three public health units in northern Ontario, prompting renewed pleas from officials for residents to take precautions against the virus.

The province has confirmed dozens of cases of the variant that first emerged in the U.K. and one of the variant that was first detected in South Africa, but all cases had previously been in southern regions.

The public health unit covering the Sudbury, Ont., region said Friday it had confirmed one case of the U.K. strain.

Public Health Sudbury and Districts said three other likely variant cases were being investigated -- two cases among international travellers completing quarantine, and one a close contact of a variant case.

The region's medical officer of health said the cases are a reminder that "we are all vulnerable and we are not somehow specially protected."

“The virus spreads in the same way as regular COVID-19, but it is much more infectious," Dr. Penny Sutcliffe said in a statement.

"This can result in more cases, which means that more people could become seriously ill, while others may lose their lives."

She urged people to limit or avoid contact with anyone outside their households.

The variants are believed to be more infectious and health officials have said they might also cause more severe illness or be more resistant to vaccines.

The strain that was first found in the U.K., known as B.1.1.7., has been linked to a worsening wave of infections across Europe, and Ontario has confirmed 155 cases of it so far.

Public Health Ontario began screening all positive COVID-19 samples this week for a common mutation shared by three "variants of concern." Samples found to have the mutation then undergo genome sequencing to determine the exact variant.

On Thursday, the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit confirmed its first variant case, related to recent international travel. Tests are underway to determine the exact strain.

The region's top doctor urged people to take precautions against the virus. He referenced a deadly outbreak at Roberta Place in Barrie, Ont., where 66 long-term care home residents have died and more than 200 people have been infected in an outbreak driven by a variant.

"The variants can be devastating," Dr. Jim Chirico said in a statement. "We must not let our guard down and we need to continue to follow public health guidelines.”

The Porcupine Health Unit, which serves the Timmins, Ont., area, reported Thursday a possible variant case linked to a long-term care outbreak in Kapuskasing, Ont. Further tests are needed for exact confirmation, with results expected in the next few days.

Eleven residents at Extendicare Kapuskasing had died in the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak as of Friday, according to provincial data.

The region's medical officer of health said public health officials are working with Extendicare, the ministry of long-term care and other partners to reduce spread in the home.

In Toronto, where the variant detected in the U.K. has been linked to a large workplace outbreak, the public health unit announced Friday it had found five variant cases in two health-care facilities.

One case, still under investigation, is part of an outbreak at The Elm Grove Living Centre, a long-term care home currently in outbreak.

The health unit said it's also investigating four cases at Baycrest Hospital. One of the cases was confirmed as the U.K. variant.

The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press