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Paramedics transport a person from Roberta Place, a long-term seniors care facility which is the site of a coronavirus in Barrie, Ont., on Jan. 18, 2021.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

The U.K. variant of COVID-19 is behind a devastating outbreak that has torn through an Ontario long-term care home, killing 32 and infecting all but two residents.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit announced on Saturday morning that a genome sequencing test identified the highly contagious and easily transmitted United Kingdom variant in six COVID-19 samples taken from Roberta Place in Barrie, north of Toronto.

“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,” said Charles Gardner, the health unit’s medical officer of health.

Dr. Gardner initially said on Wednesday that preliminary lab tests found a high likelihood of an unidentified variant of concern in the six swabs. The second test determined that it was the variant known as U.K. B117, first discovered in London and the southeast of England.

This is the first known case of a variant making its way into a long-term care home in Canada, a sector that has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus.

Since the onset of the pandemic last March, 3,322 residents in Ontario nursing homes have succumbed to the virus, accounting for 60 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths in the province.

Barrie is “ground zero” for the new COVID-19 variant, Dr. Gardner said. “We all need to be on the alert,” he told reporters on Saturday. “I’m very concerned about the potential impact of spread in the community.”

During a conference call on Saturday with Rick Hillier, the retired general leading Ontario’s vaccine distribution efforts, and medical officers of health at other public health units in the province, Dr. Gardner also conveyed his fears about the more contagious version of the virus spreading into the community.

The outbreak at Roberta Place began on Jan. 8 after a staff member tested positive during routine surveillance testing. Within 48 hours, 55 residents and staff were sickened with the virus.

As of Saturday, 127 residents have tested positive for COVD-19, including 32 who have died. In addition, 84 workers have become sickened with the virus, as well as 21 people from other agencies helping the home with the outbreak, including the Canadian Red Cross and a local hospice.

“I don’t have any reason to believe that it’s anything other than this U.K. variant throughout the facility,” Dr. Gardner told reporters.

The first staffer who tested positive for the virus was in close contact with someone who travelled internationally, but not to the United Kingdom, Brazil or South Africa – three countries where new variants have been detected. The staffer’s swab was one of the six containing the U.K. variant.

Dr. Gardner said neither the staff member or the traveler broke any quarantine rules. The traveler isolated within the home in Barrie and the staffer had no symptoms of the virus before testing positive.

“We’re left with the question of whether in future we need to be more restrictive with travel,” he said.

The health unit is accelerating its COVID-19 immunization program for people who live and work in long-term care and retirement homes.

Dr. Gardner did not get the go-ahead from the Ontario government until last Saturday to roll up its mobile immunization unit to Roberta Place - days after the outbreak swept through the home - and administer the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer Inc.

The health unit gave residents and staff in long-term care homes throughout the Simcoe Muskoka region the first dose of the vaccine last Saturday. It is spending this weekend giving staff and residents in retirement homes their first shot of the vaccine.

However, Dr. Gardner said, the health unit does not have enough vaccine to give these vulnerable residents and workers a second dose, which is needed to provide maximum protection against the virus.

He has appealed to General Hillier and officials in the Ontario Ministry of Health for additional vaccine. “We have made the case,” he said. “All eyes are watching us and they are looking at what they can do to give us more vaccine.”

The Simcoe Muskoka health unit received the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 21. But in accordance with protocols set by the province, it was initially administered at hospitals, not long-term care homes.

Dr. Gardner was expecting to receive a shipment of vaccine from Moderna on Jan. 11. But shortly before that date, provincial government officials informed him they were diverting Simcoe Muskoka’s share of the Moderna vaccine to other areas in the province hit harder by the virus.

COVID-19 vaccines are not coming to Canada as fast as hoped. Pfizer is cutting shipments to Canada over the next month as it retools a Belgian plant to pump out more doses in the future.

“We were all very disappointed when we learned about the slow down of the Pfizer vaccine,” Dr. Gardner said.

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