BARRIE, ONT. -- The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) believes it's possible that a COVID-19 variant found in several swab tests at a Barrie, Ont., long-term care home, where 25 residents have died, may be in the community.

On Thursday morning, Dr. Colin Lee, SMDHU associate medical officer of health, said while the variant had yet to be identified, it has proven to be more infectious and a real cause for concern.

"I think everyone is a little more fearful today than they were yesterday morning. This is more contagious. It's here. There's a good chance that it's going to slowly spread within our area, and not only within our area but other areas in Ontario," Lee said.

Health officials believe the mutation may have come into the facility through a staff member who caught it from a close contact that had recently travelled. While Lee wouldn't comment where that contact had been, he did confirm it wasn't the U.K., Brazil or South Africa.

On Wednesday, the region's health unit confirmed six swabs tested positive for a COVID-19 mutation at Roberta Place.

By Thursday, the Barrie facility's raging outbreak claimed 25 lives and infected 122 residents and 74 staff.

Lee said the strain could have come from within the community.

"There is always the possibility that it was in the community already, and somehow it got in."

He said the health unit is testing to figure out which variant they are dealing with as "this virus is very stealthy." The results are expected in the coming days.

The health unit said the virus spread so rapidly, infecting dozens in just over 48 hours, that there was immediate concern about a possible mutation. Lee added that the virus might be able to penetrate protective equipment, making it even more dangerous.

"We really do need to concentrate on the measures that we're taking. That physical distancing becomes that much more important. You know, if you can physical distance yourself instead of going closer and wearing protection, that's what I would do," Lee noted.

The associate medical officer of health urged the public to continue to follow public health recommendations.

"We need to stay vigilant. We need to stay vigilant with all the public health measures, physical distancing, and when you are wearing your mask and other protection, you need to be vigilant in wearing it all the time."

"I think the thing that can help mitigate this all - we need to get the vaccine in the arms as quickly as possible, especially the vulnerable.

We need the vaccine now," Lee stated.

Earlier this week, the government said Premier Doug Ford made an appeal to the COVID-19 vaccine maker Pfizer about speeding up production and delivery of more vaccines.

The health unit has been vaccinating those in long-term care facilities, and on Thursday, reported more than 14,400 doses of the Pfizer-BioTech COVID19 vaccine had been given to health care workers and residents across the region.

Meanwhile, a team from Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital (OSMH) is working to contain the outbreak.

"We are taking all the necessary IPAC precautions for all the residents, and that will help the existing residents and also protect the staff," said Carmine Stumpo, OSMH President and CEO.

The health unit said 21 residents and 235 staff and caregivers had been immunized at Roberta Place so far.