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UK variant's presence at Roberta Place heightens concerns over community spread

'What we have here we probably won't be able to contain,' says Dr. Gardner; Death toll at Essa Road facility has now reached 32
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With the United Kingdom COVID-19 variant now being confirmed at Roberta Place in south-end Barrie, there are heightened concerns about its presence in the community at large. 

The death toll at the Essa Road facility has now reached 32, which is an increase of five people from Friday. 

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit confirmed on Saturday that six swabs (five residents and one staff) taken at the Roberta Place long-term care home have been identified as the UK variant of the virus after genome sequencing was completed. The second test determined the mutation to be the much more virulent UK B.1.1.7 variant.

The swabs tested included a sample from the first case discovered at Roberta Place, the same one that prompted the outbreak declaration on Jan. 8.

With more than 20 cases of the UK variant already identified in Ontario, Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for Simcoe-Muskoka, said there's likely already community transmission happening. 

"My concern is very high," Gardner said Saturday on a Zoom call with reporters. "This virus, this variant, has proven to be highly infectious. It rapidly progressed through the home despite best efforts and has now infected many workers and our partners who responded to the situation, and even some household members of staff and of those who responded this situation, so I'm very concerned about its spread."

"What we have here we probably won't be able to contain," the doctor added. 

Monitoring of community spread is currently limited to close contacts of known cases, he said. 

There are 127 residents which is all but two residents — who have tested positive for the virus, as well as 84 staff, which represents approximately half of the staff. Six residents and one staff member are currently hospitalized at Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH).

"I do not doubt that all of them have the variant," Gardner said. "There's no reason to believe a second variant, a second variety, was introduced onto the site at the same time coincidentally. I don't have any reason to believe that it's anything other than this UK variant throughout the facility... in all of the positive cases."

On Friday, Gardner said Barrie had become "ground zero for what is likely a COVID-19 variant of concern."

The outbreak at the 137-bed Roberta Place long-term care home was first declared on Jan. 8.

A "critical element to the response," Gardner said, is containing the variant as much as possible to Roberta Place and not it to spread further into the community. 

There will be ongoing monitoring at Roberta Place through rapid testing by Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital (OSMH), which has been granted temporary leadership of the long-term care home. This will be done on a twice-weekly basis. 

In addition, two essential visitors, three external partners (workers and physicians, etc., from outside agencies), and 21 household members linked to Roberta Place have tested positive.

"All of this speaks to just how communicable this variant of COVID-19 is," Gardner said. 

When looking at international experience and research with the variant, Gardner said it could lead to a stricter threshold to determine when someone should go into isolation and follow-up testing.

"This is very important work," he said. "Our goal is to avoid further transmission into the community."

In partnership with RVH, the health unit ramped up its immunization program Friday with its mobile immunization team vaccinating all eligible residents and staff at the neighbouring Roberta Place retirement lodge against COVID-19. Vaccines have already been administered in Roberta Place long-term care home to residents and staff who are eligible. Those already sick with COVID cannot get the vaccine.

Beginning this weekend, the health unit and RVH began immunizing residents at the other retirement homes throughout Simcoe-Muskoka. As of Jan. 16, eligible residents of all long-term care facilities in Simcoe-Muskoka have received their first dose of immunization against COVID-19, according to the health unit.