BARRIE, ONT. -- The Ontario government issued a province-wide stay-at-home order that takes effect Thursday at 12:01 am, requiring residents to remain at home except for essential reasons.

The news comes as the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) reports two more deaths among Simcoe County residents Wednesday. In the past week, the virus has claimed seven lives.

In addition, the health unit listed 82 Simcoe County residents tested positive for COVID-19, and two Muskoka residents were confirmed to have the virus.

SMDHU's medical officer of health said most cases in the region are variants of concern.

"So far this week, 85 per cent of COVID-19 cases have tested positive for variants of concern," said Dr. Charles Gardner. The region's top doctor said 97 per cent of variant cases are in Simcoe County, and three per cent in Muskoka.

To date, 1,124 local cases have been confirmed to be the UK B.1.1.7 variant. Eighteen cases tested positive for the Brazil P.1 variant, and two cases tested positive for the South Africa B.1.351 variant, one more in the past 24 hours. Three hundred eighty-one cases screened positive for a variant of concern.

Dr. Gardner pointed to indoor gatherings with friends and families from different households who go to work and spread the disease unknowingly, affecting schools, workplaces and families.

He noted younger people between 20 and 29 are now becoming infected at a higher rate than any other age group in Simcoe Muskoka as the highly contagious variants spread more rapidly.

Meanwhile, the stay-at-home order requires all non-essential businesses to close, offering curbside pickup or delivery only.

Schools will remain open, a move Gardner stands behind, noting transmission is greater within the community than in the school environment.

Currently, more than 111,000 Simcoe Muskoka residents have been vaccinated.

Immunization clinics across the region have appointments booked for the next two weeks; however, eligible residents can schedule an appointment online. Residents 60 and older are now eligible to book an appointment to receive the vaccine. 

Select pharmacies are also offering the AstraZeneca vaccine to qualifying residents 55 and older.