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Paramedics transport a person from Roberta Place, a long term seniors care facility which is the site of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Barrie, Ontario, Canada January 18, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos OsorioCARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

A devastating outbreak linked to the British variant of COVID-19 at a long-term care home north of Toronto has now infected just more than 300 individuals, heightening fears of community spread.

Ninety “household members” – a broad group that includes family of people who live or work at Roberta Place in Barrie, Ont., as well as staff from local hospitals, paramedic services and other community agencies helping manage the outbreak – have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, said Charles Gardner, Medical Officer of Health at the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, in an interview on Wednesday.

All but one of the home’s 128 residents have been sickened with the virus, along with 86 staff members.

Dr. Gardner has said Barrie is ground zero for the highly contagious and easily transmitted variant first detected in Britain. The growing number of cases in the Simcoe Muskoka region indicates how quickly a variant of concern can cause COVID-19 cases to multiply.

The Simcoe Muskoka health unit has deployed investigators to track down another 172 close contacts associated with Roberta Place. All of these contacts, he said, are at high-risk of having contracted the virus.

The variant from Britain has reached a second long-term care home in the region. The health unit received confirmation on Wednesday that two staff members at the Bradford Valley Care Community long-term care home have tested positive for the variant, known as B.1.1.7.

“Clearly, the new strain UK variant is of great concern to us here,” Dr. Gardner told reporters earlier this week. “We saw how rapidly it went through Roberta Place. ... It will be very hard for us to prevent this from transmitting in the community.”

A genome-sequencing test has identified the variant in six COVID-19 samples taken from Roberta Place and three from Bradford Valley – the two staffers and an individual in close contact with someone at the home. Preliminary testing shows a high likelihood of the variant in another 99 samples.

At Bradford Valley, eight residents and three staff have been infected with COVID-19 since an outbreak began on Jan. 14.

Dr. Gardner said he has reached out to other public-health units in Ontario for assistance with contact tracing. Three have stepped up – Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Public Health; Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Health Unit; and Renfrew County District Health Unit – sending a total of nine staff to help with contact tracing.

Before the outbreak at Roberta Place, which began on Jan. 8, Dr. Gardner said his staff relied for the most part on people who tested positive to inform their contacts. The health unit provided them with a prepared script.

Without help from the other regions, Dr. Gardner said his health unit did not have the resources to reach contacts within 24 hours.

“But now with this situation, we’ve gone back to direct follow-up ourselves with all cases to take detailed information,” he said. “So that’s a big step for us.”

The presence of a more contagious variant of COVID-19 in the Simcoe Muskoka region has also prompted the health unit to develop more stringent protocols for determining when a close contact must go into isolation.

Two people who have been together for 10 minutes or more and less than two metres away are typically considered close contacts. Simcoe Muskoka has shortened the time period to as little as one second if the individuals are not wearing face masks.

Julia King, chief operating officer of Roberta Place, told family members during a Zoom call on Wednesday that 128 of the home’s 129 residents have been sickened with the virus, along with 86 staff members. Forty-nine residents have died, she said, adding that “it’s incredibly difficult for us to share this news.”

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