Health officials are investigating whether the British variant of COVID-19 behind a devastating outbreak at a long-term care home north of Toronto is also linked to infections at two other sites, heightening fears of community spread.
A genome sequencing test has identified the variant in six COVID-19 samples taken from Roberta Place, a long-term care home in Barrie where all but two residents are infected with the coronavirus; 40 residents and one essential caregiver have died.
On Sunday, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit announced that it has received another laboratory-confirmed case for the highly contagious and easily transmitted variant first detected in Britain.
The individual was in close contact with a person who lives or works at a long-term care home in Bradford with an outbreak of COVID-19. And the individual was also connected to a retail outlet in Simcoe County offering curbside pickup where two people have tested positive for the virus.
The developments in the Simcoe Muskoka region on the weekend have reinforced concerns that COVID-19 variants pose a danger to Canada’s health and economic well-being. Yet government and health care leaders are in the dark about the extent of the problem.
Medical experts are calling for tighter restrictions at the border and on interprovincial travel as well as more vigilant and proactive testing for the presence of variants first discovered in London and the southeast of England, South Africa and Brazil.
“My real fear with these variants is that the third wave could get started before the second wave has even ended, driven by these variants of concern,” said Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Sinai Health System in Toronto. “The Roberta Place outbreak is the canary in the coal mine, I think, for what we could be dealing with.”
Barrie is “ground zero” for the new variant, said Charles Gardner, Simcoe Muskoka’s medical officer of health, adding there is a “very real possibility” it’s circulating in the community.
“I believe that we need to grow the surveillance system, the laboratory system, the expectations of testing at this time, given that we’re seeing more and more evidence of risk from new variants,” Dr. Gardner told reporters on Sunday.
The health unit is pursuing further testing to determine whether the variant known as UK B117 found its way into the Bradford Valley Care Community long-term care home. The individual who tested positive for the variant was in close contact with someone at the home who is part of an outbreak of COVID-19 that began on Jan. 14, and has infected six residents and four staff.
The 230-bed home is owned by Sienna Senior Living Inc., one of Canada’s largest operators of private, for-profit long-term care homes.
Dr. Gardner provided few details about the unidentified retail outlet beyond saying he is investigating it as “another point of contact in the community.”
Roberta Place has become the first known case of a variant in a long-term care home in Canada, a sector that has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus with 3,347 deaths in Ontario alone.
The outbreak of COVID-19 began on Jan. 8 at Roberta Place, after a staff member tested positive during routine surveillance testing. As of Sunday, 127 residents have tested positive, including 40 who succumbed to the virus. An essential caregiver has also died of COVID-19, and 86 staff and 42 household contacts – including workers from community groups helping out at the home – have tested positive.
The first staffer who tested positive was in close contact with someone who travelled internationally. The staffer’s swab was one of the six containing the British variant. On Sunday, Dr. Gardner said he, “cannot say that we are absolutely certain” that proper quarantine travel rules were followed.
Jeff Kwong, professor at the Department of Family and Community Medicine and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, said other countries, including Australia and Hong Kong, have mandatory hotel quarantine and do not just rely on the goodwill of people to follow rules.
“I can understand the civil-liberties perspective, and you’re inconveniencing people who are travelling, but think about the implications – one traveller infected one person who works in long-term care that led to a massive outbreak, that led to dozens of deaths. Imagine that playing out over and over and over again,” he said.
Dr. Kwong was part of a group that advised the federal government to restrict international travel to only essential trips and to increase testing and variant screening for travellers.
“There’s huge risk for importation from other countries, on top of all the local transmission we already had,” he said in an interview. “We are adding more fuel to the fire by not securing our borders.”
Alexandra Hilkene, press secretary for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, said the ministry is in regular contact with the Public Health Agency of Canada and other jurisdictions to monitor the developing situation related to COVID-19 variants and to co-ordinate their efforts to protect and safeguard the public.
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