BARRIE, ONT. --
A COVID-19 variant has been identified in six swab tests done at Roberta Place in Barrie, Ont., where an outbreak has claimed at least 19 lives.
Since the health unit declared an outbreak at the long-term facility, cases have exploded, with 122 residents, 69 staff, and two visitors testing positive for COVID-19.
Nineteen residents have now died after becoming infected.
"The impact of this outbreak on the facility has been tragic, and these interim results of a variant are extremely concerning for everyone," says Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit.
Gardner says the virus spread so rapidly the health unit was immediately concerned about a possible variant. It's not known how the new strain got into the seniors' home.
"Usually, we never do find out for sure," Gardner says contact tracing is challenging. He says one staffer was in contact with a person who travelled out of the country and tested positive for COVID-19 but says it's unknown if that was the source.
Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital took the lead on containing the outbreak after Gardner issued the order on Saturday.
"The health unit, Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital, and Roberta Place, as well as our partners including the Red Cross, Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre, community physicians, are all working together to contain the spread of the virus and protect residents and staff," Gardner adds.
The health unit says it is testing to find out what strain of COVID-19 they are dealing with using a two-part test.
The first part of the test indicated "a very high probability that they are of a variant strain of concern." The second portion of the test is a whole-genome sequencing that determines the exact strain.
Gardner says the concern goes beyond Roberta Place. "This institution, like any, is part of the community," he says. "There is potential for it to spread to the community."
"We know from research that it [the strain] is more communicable," Gardner says.
Meanwhile, a mobile vaccine clinic administered the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to residents who were able and willing.
"We understand that these are very unprecedented and challenging times for the families, residents and staff of Roberta Place, and we appreciate the concern of all involved as we get more information on the variant in the coming days," said Dr. Gardner.
The results from the genome testing are expected in three to four days.