Ontario wrestles with how to contain more contagious variant of COVID-19

·4 min read

Officials are debating whether additional public health measures are needed to rein in a coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom that is now spreading in Ontario.

Premier Doug Ford said he is so concerned about the threat posed by the more transmissible mutation that he wants Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to halt all non-essential travel by foreigners into Canada.

Ford said Monday he would like mandatory testing at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, which he plans to visit on Tuesday.

"We have to test every person that comes into Pearson and any other crossing. It's absolutely critical. We need to put barriers up every which way we can," Ford told reporters.

"I can't emphasize enough: close down our borders and make sure anyone that's coming in gets tested."

Ontario has confirmed at least 34 cases of the variant that was first identified in the U.K., some among people who have not travelled outside of the province.

Craig Chivers/CBC
Craig Chivers/CBC

Dr. Vanessa Allen, chief of microbiology and laboratory science at Public Health Ontario, told reporters on Monday that the province will analyze every COVID-19-positive sample from one day last week to learn just how prevalent the variant is.

Allen said the strain is considered more contagious and there is evidence that it causes more severe disease in some people. This particular strain has been found in more than 60 countries, she said.

Asked if the variant can actually be contained at this stage, she said: "We don't know yet, but we will be finding out in the days to come."

Public Health Ontario is deploying tests to find possible cases of the "variants of concern" before sending them up for genomic screening, which can take days, Allen said. The screening test is focusing on cases considered "high-risk" for the mutations, such as aggressive outbreaks known as "superspreader events" and cases affecting known travellers.

"The goal based on the data right now is to do everything we can to contain every single case we find and increase our capacity to find them, recognizing that we still don't have the full picture because we have not tested everybody to date," Allen said.

'Very much on top of it'

Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease physician with Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont., said he is not convinced of the need to ban travel.

"Our existing public health protocols, such as physical distancing, wearing masks, ventilation, all these types of things, still work to prevent the variant from infecting you," Chakrabarti said.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said Monday that the province is testing samples to look for three new variants — separate strains that first emerged in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil — to determine where they are and how they spread.

So far, only the variant first detected in the U.K. has been found in Ontario. Cases have been confirmed by public health units covering Toronto, Ottawa, York, Durham and Peel regions, as well as Simcoe Muskoka, Middlesex-London and the Kingston area as of Monday.

Elliott said the province had tested more than 9,000 samples for the new variants as of Monday, and is aiming to assess 1,500 samples per week starting next week.

"We are very much on top of it and we are detecting it very quickly so that we'll know how to deal with different geographic areas where it may show up," Elliott told reporters.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Deadly outbreak

The new variant is deemed to have caused a deadly outbreak at Roberta Place Long Term Care Home in Barrie, Ont., that has infected more than 200 people. The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit said it was investigating whether the variant was also a factor in an outbreak at the Bradford Valley Care Community, a long-term care home in the town of Bradford West Gwillimbury.

The health unit, which has confirmed seven cases of the variant, announced a strategy on Monday to curb spread.

Measures include more frequent testing for residents, visitors and staff at care homes dealing with outbreaks where the variant is suspected.

The variant has been confirmed by Simcoe Muskoka health officials as "the causative agent" in the outbreak at Roberta Place, in Barrie, Ont., after six cases were confirmed in samples.

The seventh individual with a confirmed case of the new strain was a close contact of someone infected in another outbreak at Bradford Valley Care Community. Public health officials were still investigating the link on Monday.

The public health unit said 44 residents at Roberta Place had died from COVID-19, and the outbreak had infected 127 residents and 86 staff.

Five other people assisting with the outbreak had been infected, the health officials said Monday, including two essential caregivers. One of the caregivers had died from the illness.

Toronto Public Health has also reported 10 cases of the variant.