COVID variant detected at Ont. long-term care home very concerning: public health

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A yet-to-be identified variant of COVID-19 found in a Barrie, Ont., long-term care home is extremely concerning because it appears to be spreading more quickly among residents, public health officials said Thursday.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit said the unusually rapid spread of the virus at Roberta Place earlier this month prompted officials to start testing for a variant strain.

Fifty-five people at the nursing home became ill within 48 hours of the first COVID-19 case being identified, said Dr. Colin Lee, the unit's associate medical officer of health.

As of Wednesday evening, the health unit reported that 122 residents and 69 staff had been infected, and 19 residents had died.

The variant was identified in six cases and further results are expected in the coming days, the unit said.

"The problem is that this spreads so quickly to so many people that ultimately you're going to have a higher chance of more people severely ill and (more) deaths," Lee said.

There's a "very high probability" that the variant detected at the home is one of three known COVID-19 variants – strains from the U.K., South Africa and Brazil, said Lee.

Public health officials will be carrying out more testing at the home and will be trying to immunize as many residents and staff at the facility as possible, he said.

An earlier immunization effort saw only 21 residents vaccinated as most others were already infected with COVID-19, he said.

"We went in there on Saturday and immunized as many as we could," he said.

The health unit is trying to reach all close contacts of those infected as quickly as possible so they can self-isolate if needed, said Lee.

"One of our primary goals right now is to prevent the spread further, as it gets into households and other hospitals," Lee said.

Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical of health, said public health officials will also be stepping up infection prevention and control at the home.

Yaffe said the source of infection is still hard to determine as the outbreak at the home is still under investigation.

"At this point, we know a mutation is in there. The 501 mutation that’s associated with increased transmissibility ... We don’t know which mutant it is, or which variant of concern," she said.

“So it’s hard to say right now how widespread it is because we don’t even know exactly what it is.”

Last week, the Canadian Red Cross was deployed to Roberta Place to help with the growing outbreak.

Orillia Soldiers Memorial Hospital, along with other local organizations, has also been asked to help manage it.

The Ministry of Long-Term Care said Thursday that it was working with its health partners to ensure staffing levels at the home were sufficient.

“This development underscores the need for everyone to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19 and help protect our long-term care homes, especially as we find more evidence of new variants in our communities,” said spokeswoman Krystle Caputo.

The nursing home's website says it can accommodate 137 residents.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2021.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Denise Paglinawan, The Canadian Press