City reports COVID-19 variant of concern at Toronto homeless shelter

A COVID-19 case at a Toronto homeless shelter has been identified as a variant of concern, the city said on Saturday.

Type of variant at Maxwell Meighen Centre unknown, but tests will be done to identify strain

A variant of concern has been identified at this Toronto shelter. (Ivan Arsovski/CBC)

City officials say a COVID-19 case at a Toronto homeless shelter has been identified as a variant of concern.

The case is at the Maxwell Meighen Centre, a shelter funded by the city and operated by the Salvation Army at 135 Sherbourne St., near Queen Street East. The city says it has informed Toronto Public Health about the case.

Officials said it is the first time that a variant has been detected at a homeless shelter in Toronto.

The type of variant is unknown but Public Health Ontario Laboratory is expected to conduct further tests to identify the strain.

"The City is advising the public about this case in the interest of transparency," the city said in a news release on Saturday.

There are eight active cases of COVID-19 at the shelter. All residents who have tested positive or who are close contacts of people who have become infected have been sent to the city's isolation and recovery centre.

Testing of all residents and staff members at the shelter has begun.

The city did not say whether a resident or staff member tested positive for the variant.

According to the city, the shelter usually supports 380 residents, but because physical distancing measures have been put in place at the shelter over the past several months, the facility now supports only 200 residents.

Dr. Vinita Dubey, the city's associate medical officer of health, said in an email on Saturday that evidence shows that variants are more highly contagious than the initial strain of the novel coronavirus.

"At present, known variants of the novel coronavirus are believed to be more transmissible. This increases the risk the COVID-19 virus will spread between people," she said.

"Faster and wider spread of the virus makes it more likely to have higher numbers of people sick, which can increase strain on the health care system."   

Advocates call news 'super alarming'

Doug Johnson Hatlem, a street pastor with Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, said the announcement by the city is a positive move, but the news itself is disturbing.

"Now is always a good time to start transparency. Very worrisome news for shelter residents, the sector, and City," he said in a tweet on Saturday.

Cathy Crowe, a street nurse, agreed, saying the news is "super alarming" given that shelters are congregate sites and lack physical distancing. She said the variant is yet another reason that shelter residents should be a priority group for vaccination.

City trying to bring outbreak under control

The city's shelter, support and housing administration, meanwhile, is working with Toronto Public Health and the Salvation Army to implement infection prevention and control measures at the shelter.

These measures include:

  • Physical distancing in all areas of the shelter, including washrooms, dining and common areas.
  • Mandatory use of face coverings or masks.
  • Frequent hand washing.
  • Daily symptom screening of all clients and staff.
  • Enhanced cleaning.
  • Transportation to isolation and recovery sites for people who are awaiting results or who have tested positive.
  • Quality assurance site visits to ensure the shelter is complying with infection prevention and control measures.
The Maxwell Meighen Centre has eight cases of COVID-19. (Ivan Arsovski/CBC)

City says 4 Toronto shelters in outbreak

As of Wednesday at 5 p.m., the last time the city's case numbers were updated, there were four homeless shelter outbreaks in Toronto.

In addition to the outbreak at the Maxwell Meighen Centre, there are outbreaks at Dixon Hall, Warden Woods Community Centre - Respite Services, and Seaton House.

A total of 93 shelter residents have tested positive for COVID-19. According to the city, 43 of those cases are at Seaton House, the city's largest shelter for men. One resident of Seaton House with COVID-19 is now in hospital.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 839 COVID-19 cases linked to shelter outbreaks in Toronto.

There are four shelters in outbreak in Toronto. Seaton House, the city's largest shelter for men, pictured here, is one of them. (Sam Nar/CBC)

Variants can turn into 'significant public health threat'

Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city's medical officer of health, noted at a recent city hall news conference that variants are of great concern.

"Variants can grow into a significant public health threat, spreading widely and with potentially overwhelming speed thanks to mutations that make the virus easier to catch," de Villa said on Wednesday.

Three types of variants have been found in Ontario: B.1.1.7, the one first detected in the United Kingdom; B.1.351, the one first detected in South Africa; and P.1, the one first detected in Brazil.

De Villa said variants may cause more severe disease in some people and they may be able to reinfect those who have had COVID-19 but have recovered. Vaccines, however, seem to produce an immune response to the variants, she said.

"If —as expected — variants of concern become the dominant strain in Toronto, there is an even greater likelihood of case counts increasing, given increased transmissibility is proven by science to be true," de Villa has said.

Toronto has 33 cases of the variant first detected in the U.K. and one case of the variant first detected in Brazil, as of Friday, according to Ontario health ministry data.