TORONTO — Health officials identified a U.K. variant of COVID-19 at a long-term care home reeling from a deadly outbreak in Barrie, Ont., Saturday as the province recorded a slightly lower daily virus case count.
The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit said genome sequencing on six COVID-19 samples from Roberta Place Retirement Lodge have been identified as the highly contagious B117 variant.
Officials with the local health unit announced earlier this week that they had found a variant at the home north of Toronto and conducted tests to determine what it was. Known variant strains of the virus were first detected in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil.
As of Saturday, officials said 32 residents of the facility have died of COVID-19.
A total of 127 residents of the site, as well as 84 staff, have tested positive. Six residents and one staff member were in hospital.
Positive cases have also been found in two of the site’s essential visitors, as well as 21 household members, such as workers, and three external partners, such as physicians.
Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, said he suspected that all of the facility’s cases were the variant.
An outbreak at Roberta Place was first declared on Jan. 8.
Gardner said the home wasn’t able to successfully cohort cases and non-cases at the start of the outbreak, partly because of how quickly it spread and partly because of how many staff members became ill, leading to difficulty in maintaining adequate staffing.
At a virtual news conference Saturday, Gardner faced questions about why stronger protocols weren’t in place at the start of the outbreak. He said it would be extremely difficult for most facilities to handle a variant that moves this quickly.
“We certainly will have to learn from this with regards to what you do with other sites. The whole province will have to learn as we go,” he said.
The source of the variant at the facility hasn’t been confirmed. Earlier this week health officials said a worker at the site had contact with someone who had travelled abroad, but Gardner said there was no violation of government quarantine guidelines in that case.
Gardner said officials are taking measures including monitoring the close contacts of those who’ve gone in and out of the facility to prevent community transmission.
Gardner said they haven’t seen evidence of community spread yet but the risk is high.
Video: What caused the delays in reaching Ontario’s long term care home residents with a COVID-19 vaccine? (Global News)
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The health unit, in partnership with the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre, said it accelerated its immunization program on Friday and vaccinated all eligible residents and staff.
Officials said they planned to immunize residents at other retirement homes throughout Simcoe Muskoka over the weekend.
As of Jan. 16, eligible residents of all long-term care facilities in Simcoe Muskoka have also received their first dose of immunization against COVID-19.
Ontario reported 2,359 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday and 52 more deaths related to the virus.
That was down marginally from Friday’s figures of 2,662 new cases and 87 more deaths. There was also a slight drop in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19, with 1,501 reported on Saturday — 11 fewer than Friday.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said Saturday there were 708 new cases in Toronto, 422 in Peel Region, 220 in York Region, 107 in Hamilton and 101 in Ottawa.
Since the province’s report on Friday, nearly 63,500 tests had been completed and 11,161 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine administered in Ontario.
As of Saturday, a total of 276,146 doses have been administered in Ontario.
On Saturday the Ontario government also announced it’s expanding its “inspection blitz” of big-box stores to ensure they’re following COVID-19 guidelines this weekend.
The workplace inspections, which started in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas last weekend, will now stretch out to Ottawa, Windsor, Niagara and Durham regions.
Officials want to ensure workers and customers at the essential businesses are properly protected from COVID-19 during the provincewide shutdown.
The blitz was developed in consultation with local health units and also covers a variety of other workplaces, including retail establishments and restaurants providing take-out meals.
The province’s labour ministry says more than 300 offences officers, as well as local public health inspectors and municipal bylaw officers, will conduct the inspections.
Corporations can now be fined $1,000, and individuals can be fined $750 or charged for failing to comply with the orders.
Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said the province is confident that the majority of workplaces in Ottawa, Windsor, Niagara and Durham are following orders.
“However, if we find that businesses are putting the safety of workers and customers at risk, our government will not hesitate to take immediate action,” McNaughton added in a statement.
“The only way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and end the provincewide shutdown is for everyone — owners, customers and staff alike — to follow the proper guidelines.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23, 2021.
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press