BARRIE, ONT. -- For nearly three weeks, a long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., has been battered by a devastating and deadly COVID-19 outbreak that has now claimed 49 lives and infected 214 residents and staff.

"This virus is incredibly fast, incredibly deadly, and brutally unforgiving," said Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital's (OSMH) president and CEO Carmine Stumpo.

The health unit confirmed Roberta Place now faces a more contagious strain of the virus, believed to be the U.K. variant, after tests revealed more than 100 cases were detected both inside the facility and within the region. Health officials reported most of the cases were linked to the Barrie home outbreak; however, two cases are not connected. With no known source of transmission, local health officials worry the variant "may be more widespread."

The figures on the variant came from an ongoing study by Public Health Ontario that's screening all positive COVID-19 tests from Jan. 20 for three new "variants of concern" for a provincewide snapshot of their prevalence.

The current numbers might be the "tip of the iceberg," said Dr. Charles Gardner, Simcoe Muskoka's top doctor.

On Tuesday, Gardner said it was also concerning that 42 close contacts of those working at the Barrie long-term care home had been infected with COVID-19.

He said he believes everyone in the Roberta Place outbreak has the U.K. variant and noted that the facility's outbreak currently accounts for 42 per cent of all outbreak-related deaths recorded in the local health unit during the pandemic.

"That one outbreak alone has had a major impact locally on the total mortality figure that we've had," he said. "Clearly tragic."

According to officials, Roberta Place is currently operating as an acute care and palliative care centre rather than a long-term care home.

Over the past 10 days, a team from OSMH has been trying to contain the spread inside the long-term care home. Stumpo said the situation clearly shows rapid response is critical once the first case is confirmed.

"From the time the facility - Roberta Place - was aware of the virus and did the screening, it was so far transmitted throughout the facility. I'm not sure once established that this was ever going to be turned around," Stumpo said.

Public health officials in Simcoe Muskoka said they would be prioritizing long-term care home residents in Barrie and Bradford for COVID-19 vaccinations going forward, given the increased risk of infection from the new variant that's considered more transmissible.