BARRIE, ONT. —
Public health officials confirm a new, more easily transmissible variant of COVID-19 first identified in the United Kingdom has torn through Roberta Place Long-Term Care in Barrie, sickening nearly all of its residents.
The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit revealed Saturday that 127 residents have tested positive for COVID-19. Three more residents have died, pushing the outbreak’s death toll to 32.
Medical Officer of Health Dr. Charles Gardner said 84 employees of the home, which is roughly half of the staff, have contracted the virus since Jan. 8. Two essential visitors, three external partners, and 21 household members have also tested positive.
Genome sequencing identified the U.K. B.1.1.7 variant in six swabs taken from the facility. Gardner says there’s no reason to believe a second strain of COVID-19 was moving through the home and that all cases are likely a result of the U.K. variant.
The confirmation is deeply concerning to Gardner.
“What we have here, we probably won’t be able to contain. And therefore it becomes a risk to the broader community and other facilities.”
He warns the region is “on the edge” of seeing community spread of the variant and is open to the possibility of more specialized testing to detect it.
Roberta Place’s first positive case was in a staff member who’d had close contact with someone who recently travelled, though not to the U.K. While officials will not reveal the relationship between the staff member and the traveller, Gardner said the traveller made efforts to isolate within a shared home and that no quarantine rules were broken.
Fifty-five cases of COVID-19 were identified in the first 48 hours of the outbreak.
The rapid rise in cases meant many symptomatic staff members had to stay home. David Jarlette, President of Jarlette Health Services, said that left Roberta Place too short-handed to properly separate infected and non-infected residents.
“The virus came into the home so quickly…we found ourselves not to have the staffing resources in order to cohort in a quick and timely fashion.”
Roberta Place is under temporary management of Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital. The home has been receiving supports from other agencies, including the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH), Georgian College nursing students, and the Canadian Red Cross.
The provincial government has dismissed calls to deploy the military, insisting that there isn’t the same sort of staffing concerns as experienced at long-term care homes in the first wave of the pandemic.
Residents and staff at Roberta Place Retirement Lodge, which neighbours the long-term care home, received their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine Friday. No cases of the virus have been identified at the retirement home.
Gardner said that on a call Saturday with Retired General Rick Hillier, who is overseeing Ontario’s vaccination effort, he made a case for Simcoe Muskoka to be prioritized in the delivery of new vaccines.
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