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'Barrie has become ground zero for what is likely a COVID-19 variant of concern,' says Gardner

Health unit is at Roberta Place retirement home today immunizing residents and staff
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A shortage in vaccine supply to the region has left the local health unit with “tough choices” as it juggles the remaining doses left in the freezer. 

While the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit's vaccine roll-out is up in the air since news of a shortage in the nation's vaccine supply (Canada will receive no Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine next week) the health unit is proceeding with immunizing residents of retirement homes throughout the region. 

By end of day, all eligible residents and staff of Roberta Place retirement home (adjacent to the long-term care home in outbreak with a COVID variant strain) will have received the first dose of the COVID vaccine. Vaccines have already been administered in Roberta Place long-term care home to residents and staff who are eligible. Those sick with COVID cannot get the vaccine.

Roberta Place long-term care home was declared in COVID-19 outbreak on Jan. 8, since then 127 residents (nearly 100 per cent of those living at the home), and 81 staff have been infected with what has been shown through testing to be a variant strain of COVID-19 that is more contagious. Twenty-seven residents have died. 

“Barrie has become ground zero for what is likely a COVID-19 variant of concern, which has spread rapidly throughout Roberta Place and we are concerned that it will spread into our community and into other long-term and retirement homes,” Dr. Charles Gardner, Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s medical officer of health, said in a news release. 

“This is a race against time and we need to use the COVID-19 vaccine as our most effective means to protect these residents," he added. "We have to do what we can to prevent other outbreaks.”

Though the health unit is waiting on final results of a gene sequencing test, it is likely the variant strain will prove to be one of the known, more-contagious variants of the coronavirus. 

"We have very little vaccine supply at this time," said Janice Skot, CEO of Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre, which is working with the health unit to store and distribute the local vaccine supply. "Immunizing all retirement home residents is the right thing to do, however, it has significant implication on those waiting for their second dose of the vaccine. We need provincial help."

Some long-term care residents and caregivers in the region who received an initial dose of the COVID vaccine after Dec. 30 have been told their second dose appointments that were previously scheduled are postponed indefinitely.

Dr. Colin Lee, associate medical officer of health for the region, said the vaccine shortage leaves the health unit with “tough questions and choices.” 

“For example, how much vaccine to use for first doses for high-risk retirement home residents versus how long can we delay second doses for those long-term care home residents,” said Lee. “There is no good answer as long as how much vaccine will be delivered is unclear.” 

Lee said yesterday the health unit is prioritizing those going into Roberta Place by offering them a vaccine dose from the remaining Simcoe-Muskoka supply. 

“We are planning day-to-day, and doing our best to decide equitably and ethically to protect those who are most vulnerable,” said Lee. “We need more vaccine now, especially given that the probable variant strain is now in Barrie and has likely spread its tentacles outside of Roberta Place.” 

Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit has only received doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19. 

According to Health Canada, protection against COVID-19 is not complete until after the second dose of vaccine is received. Based on testing of the vaccine, the second dose (also called a booster) is supposed to be administered 21 days after the first dose. Both doses are identical. 

The health unit has reported it has given a dose of the COVID vaccine to all eligible long-term care residents in the region, and nearly 10,000 healthcare workers and essential caregivers received a dose of the vaccine at the Barrie clinic.

Health officials in the region and the province continue to remind the public to follow public health measures and stay home as much as possible to help prevent transmission of the virus.