'More robust' testing for UK variant needed to show community spread: Gardner

·3 min read

Confirmation of a COVID-19 variant in the community has Simcoe-Muskoka's medical officer of health calling for additional testing of positive cases to identify fast-spreading mutations.

“The system, I believe, needs to be developed to be more robust so that there’s a higher proportion of testing happening,” said Dr. Charles Gardner, referring to the two-part test for newer variants of the virus. “The ideal would be to test every sample.”

Gardner has previously described Barrie as being "ground zero" for the COVID variant as a result of the spread at Roberta Place, the first long-term care home in Canada known to have the variant.

Forty-six residents have died at Roberta Place during the outbreak, which was declared Jan. 8 by the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. An essential caregiver associated with the Essa Road facility has also succumbed to the virus, bringing the overall death toll to 47 people linked to Roberta Place.

The facility has also seen 127 positive cases among residents — which is all but two people residing there. Additionally, there have been 82 positive tests among staff/team members, three external partners and three essential caregivers.

On Saturday, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit confirmed the presence of the highly contagious UK variant, known as B.1.1.7, inside the Roberta Place long-term care home.

On Tuesday, health officials confirmed an additional 97 cases of a variant have been linked to Roberta Place.

Gardner has said he's "fully convinced" all of the Roberta Place cases are the UK variant and another strain is not at work inside the long-term care home.

But another two cases of a variant outside of the Barrie facility have been identified. One involves an employee at the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care in Penetanguishene, which is in outbreak, while the other case remains under investigation.

The two-part test first looks for the mutation of a variant of concern. Genetic sequencing of the resulting positive cases then identifies the type of variant.

The province also conducted a point-prevalence study of all of the COVID-19 positive samples from Jan. 20, Gardner explained during Tuesday's media briefing. The first part of that testing identified a variant existed in 99 Simcoe-Muskoka cases.

Testing for a variant can be requested where there is a travel history or contact with someone who has travelled or a severe and rapidly progressing outbreak.

“If it’s transmitting freely in the community, unlinked to any of that, there’s a potential to miss all of that without other indicators for testing or more frequent testing happening,” Gardner said.

Until recently, testing for that variant in Ontario was only done in special circumstances. So by Friday, only 31 cases had been identified in Canada.

Gardner said it will be very difficult to prevent the spread of the COVID variant in the community, emphasizing the importance of prevention and following stay-at-home orders. He also warned against visiting others in their home and vice versa.

“It’s really important right now with this new variant on the cusp of spreading into our community,” he said. “The potential for it to spread here is immediate.”

The UK B.1.1.7 variant is one of thousands identified worldwide. It was first found in London, England in September and has since been identified in several countries.

In December, a Whitby couple was diagnosed with Ontario’s first two cases. It was later determined they had been in close contact with someone who had been in the UK, despite their earlier denials. They were subsequently charged under the Health Protection and Promotion Act and accused of misleading contact tracers.

It is believed to be between 50 and 70 per cent more contagious than other coronavirus variants.

Marg. Bruineman, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, barrietoday.com