COVID-19 variant first seen in U.K. found in Barrie long-term care home, public health unit confirms

A variant of COVID-19 first detected in the United Kingdom has been confirmed at a long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., according to the local public health unit.

All but 2 of 129 residents at Roberta Place have been infected with COVID-19

Genome sequencing has confirmed that a variant of COVID-19 first detected in the United Kingdom is present at a long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., according to the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. (Mike Cole/CBC)

Genome sequencing has confirmed that a variant of COVID-19 first detected in the United Kingdom is present at a long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., according to the local public health unit.

This variant is considered highly contagious and can be transmitted easily.

In a news release on Saturday, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) said the testing done on Friday has determined that six samples taken from the Roberta Place Long Term Care Home are of the variant that is known as the B.1.1.7 variant. The home is north of Toronto.

On Wednesday, preliminary testing of the six cases at the home had shown a high likelihood of that they were of this COVID-19 variant.

Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the SMDHU, said in the statement that the development is of great concern.

"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," Gardner said.

"Confirmation of the variant, while expected, does not change our course of action. We remain diligent in doing everything we can to prevent further spread."

Public health unit concerned about further spread

The public health unit added in the release: "This variant of concern is more easily transmitted, resulting in much larger numbers of cases in a very rapid fashion."

In a media briefing on Saturday, Gardner said 127 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, all but two of the residents at the home. Six residents are currently in hospital.

Eighty-four staff members have tested positive for the virus, which Gardner says account for nearly half of the home's staff. 

Gardner also said there have been 32 deaths at the home, as of Saturday. The outbreak was declared on Jan. 8.

He said he is "very concerned about potential impact with spread into the community."

Garder said the variant has spread to 21 household members of staff at the home and other people who have entered the home.

"This progressed so rapidly," he said. "I'm very concerned it'll make it a challenge in future outbreaks in other LTC facilities."

Two essential visitors and three others have tested positive. 

The Canadian Red Cross was deployed to the home on Jan. 17 to help stop the ongoing outbreak. 

As of Jan. 16, eligible residents of all long-term care facilities in the region have received their first dose of immunization.

Officials said they planned to immunize residents at the other retirement homes throughout Simcoe Muskoka over the weekend.

Known variant strains of the virus were first detected in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil.

In an email on Saturday, the Ontario health ministry expressed concern.

"The province continues to determine the impact the delay in shipments from the federal government will have on the province's vaccine rollout," ministry spokesperson Alexandra Hilkene said.

"We continue to vaccinate our most vulnerable and remain committed to vaccinating long-term care and high-risk retirement home residents as quickly as we receive vaccines from the federal government."