U.K. COVID-19 variant found at long-term care home in Barrie, Ont.

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TORONTO — Health officials say a U.K. variant of COVID-19 is behind a deadly outbreak at a long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., north of Toronto.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit says genome sequencing on six COVID-19 samples from Roberta Place Retirement Lodge have been identified as the highly contagious variant.

The local health unit announced earlier this week that they had found a variant at the home and were conducting tests to determine what it was.

Known variant strains of the virus were first detected in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil.

An outbreak at Roberta Place was first declared on Jan. 8.

A news release says as of Friday, 124 of 127 residents, and 84 staff were positive for the virus, resulting in 29 deaths.

The health unit, in partnership with the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre, says it accelerated its immunization program on Friday and vaccinated all eligible residents and staff.

Officials say they're also immunizing residents at the other retirement homes throughout Simcoe Muskoka this weekend.

As of Jan. 16, eligible residents of all long-term care facilities in Simcoe Muskoka have also received their first dose of immunization against COVID-19.

"The rapid spread, high attack rate and the devastating impact on residents and staff at Roberta Place long-term care home has been heartbreaking for all," Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, said in a statement Saturday.

"Confirmation of the variant, while expected, does not change our course of action. We remain diligent in doing everything we can to prevent further spread."

Ontario reported 2,359 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday and 52 more deaths related to the virus.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said there were 708 new cases in Toronto, 422 in Peel Region, and 220 in York Region.

She said there were also 107 more cases in Hamilton and 101 in Ottawa.

Nearly 63,500 tests have been completed in Ontario over the past 24 hours.

The province reported that 11,161 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine were administered since the province's last report.

A total of 276,146 doses have been administered in Ontario so far.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 252,585 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ontario. Of those, 222,287 have recovered and 5,753 people have died.

Saturday's numbers were down from Friday's figures of 2,662 new cases and 87 more deaths.

Meanwhile, the Ontario government has announced it's expanding its "inspection blitz" of big-box stores to ensure they're following COVID-19 guidelines this weekend.

The workplace inspections, which started in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas last weekend, will now stretch out to Ottawa, Windsor, Niagara and Durham regions.

Officials want to ensure workers and customers at the essential businesses are properly protected from COVID-19 during the provincewide shutdown.

The blitz was developed in consultation with local health units and also includes a variety of other workplaces, including retail establishments and restaurants providing take-out meals.

The province's labour ministry says more than 300 offences officers, as well as local public health inspectors and municipal bylaw officers, will conduct the inspections.

Corporations can now be fined $1,000, and individuals can be fined $750 or charged for failing to comply with the orders.

Labour Minister Monte McNaughton says the province is confident that the majority of workplaces in Ottawa, Windsor, Niagara and Durham are following orders.

"However, if we find that businesses are putting the safety of workers and customers at risk, our government will not hesitate to take immediate action," McNaughton added in a statement Saturday.

"The only way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and end the provincewide shutdown is for everyone — owners, customers and staff alike — to follow the proper guidelines."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23, 2021.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press