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Paramedics transport a person from Roberta Place, a long term seniors care facility which is the site of a COVID-19 outbreak, in Barrie, Ont., Jan. 18, 2021.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Health authorities say an unidentified variant of COVID-19 is behind a devastating outbreak that has torn through an Ontario long-term care home in a matter of days, killing 19 and infecting nearly every resident.

An initial screening of viral samples from six residents of Roberta Place in Barrie, north of Toronto, shows that the version of the virus that infected them has a mutation in the same part of its genetic code as the variants recently discovered in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

Ontario’s public health lab is investigating whether one of those three variants – or a different one – is responsible for the rapid outbreak.

It would be the first time a highly contagious variant has found its way into a long-term care home in Canada – a sector that has been hard hit by the coronavirus.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit declared an outbreak of COVID-19 on Jan. 8 at Roberta Place, after a staff member with no symptoms tested positive during routine screening. As of Wednesday, 122 of the home’s 130 residents were sickened with the virus. Sixty-nine staff members and two essential visitors have also tested positive.

“I have never seen anything nearly that high before,” said Charles Gardner, the health unit’s medical officer of health.

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Among the 19 residents who have died, Dr. Gardner said, most succumbed to the virus over the past three days. The presence of the unidentified variant, he said, “helps to explain just how rapidly this outbreak has unfolded.”

Health officials are investigating whether the variant in the home came from a staff member who was in contact with a person who travelled outside Canada. Dr. Gardner said the traveller tested positive for the virus but had not been to the U.K., Brazil or South Africa. He declined to comment further, citing the need to protect the individual’s identity.

Several organizations are working with the health unit to contain the spread of the virus at the home and protect residents and staff. The Canadian Red Cross has been deployed to Roberta Place, which is a for-profit home owned by Jarlette Health Services. Dr. Gardner on Monday appointed Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital to temporarily assume leadership of the home.

David Jarlette, president of Midland, Ont.-based Jarlette Health, said the company is co-operating with the hospital. Jarlette has also pulled personnel from some of the other 18 homes it owns and hired additional workers to shore up staffing at Roberta Place. “But staffing is tenuous,” he said.

Simcoe Muskoka’s mobile immunization unit vaccinated residents and staff at the home against the virus on Saturday. But Dr. Gardner said so many people had symptoms or tested positive for the virus that only a small number of individuals were left to receive the vaccine. As a result, he said, the vaccination program likely will have little impact on the outbreak.

There is also concern that the variant could spread to the community. Ontario has identified 15 cases of the British variant, which scientists believe is as much as 70 per cent more transmissible. “It has the potential to increase the number of people who can become seriously ill,” Dr. Gardner said.

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