BARRIE, ONT. -- Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman has taken to the airwaves to urge residents to stay home with a simple but powerful message.

"A new and highly contagious variant of COVID-19 has been confirmed in Barrie. The death toll from this terrible virus is rising," Lehman said in his message, which airs on both radio and television.

"That is a very difficult message to give right now. I'm a pretty positive guy, so giving a heavy like that is tough, especially to an audience of people who are tired after eleven months of this," he said.

The message is geared towards the next couple of weeks when the mayor says the region could begin a mass-vaccination campaign if supply is available.

"We now know we are in a race, and that race will be won or lost in the matter of the next few weeks, and we need to win it because that means protecting more people and saving more lives," Lehman added.

On Monday, the health unit confirmed 19 U.K. variant cases in Simcoe County, most in Roberta Place long-term care home in Barrie and Bradford Valley Care Community.

And there is the potential for many more as the health unit reports 126 people awaiting confirmation on their tests.

"I understand the nature of that testing, it's just backlogged, and there's more of it that's required. But the province is adding capacity, so I think we'll understand in the coming days much more quickly, so I'm told," Lehman said.

Dr. Colin Lee, an associate medical officer of health with the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, said the variant is 50 per cent more transmissible and deadlier than the original strain.

Lee said the variant could be devastating, even crippling to the health care system. "It's able to find little holes in our armour, so we have to be just that much more vigilant."

According to the Barrie mayor, mass vaccinations should start in March and begin with the community's most vulnerable.