COVID-19 variant detected at Ontario long-term care home very concerning, public health officials say

More than 90 per cent of residents at a Barrie, Ont. long-term care home have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday. 

At least 122 of 130 residents at Roberta Place Long-Term Care Home have been infected, the home said in a statement to CBC Toronto on Thursday.

Since the outbreak, 19 residents have died and 69 staff are infected.

Jeremy Taggart found out on Wednesday that his mother, Beryl Taggart, was one of the residents who had tested positive.

Taggart said only two weeks ago they were assured by the home that the outbreak would be contained.

“Now it’s just this heaving cesspool that’s just, ‘Dare go in there and you’re going to get COVID-19,’ I don’t understand,” he said.

Jeremy Taggart found out on Wednesday that his mother, Beryl Taggart, was one of the residents at the home who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. (CBC)

Taggart says his mother has not experienced any symptoms yet but he is frustrated with the communication from the home.

“Clearly, they’re overwhelmed. They’re not admitting they’re overwhelmed, I don’t know why. They’ve needed help for two weeks and it’s a disaster and here I am, just kind of sitting and waiting.”

On Thursday, local public health officials said there is cause for concern for the yet-to-be identified variant of COVID-19 at the home.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit said the unusually rapid spread of the virus at Roberta Place earlier this month prompted officials to start testing for a variant strain.

Fifty-five people at the nursing home became ill within 48 hours of the first COVID-19 case being identified, said Dr. Colin Lee, the unit’s associate medical officer of health.

The variant was identified in six cases and further results are expected in the coming days, the unit said.

“The problem is that this spreads so quickly to so many people that ultimately you’re going to have a higher chance of more people severely ill and [more] deaths,” Lee said.

‘I can only wish I could turn the clock back’

Lee told CBC Toronto that the first variant case appears to be in a staff member. He said the person did have close contact with someone who travelled outside the country.

“I can only wish I could turn the clock back if we had a vaccine a month before we went in on Saturday. I think this outbreak would be a lot less severe,” Lee said.

There’s a “very high probability” that the variant detected at the home is one of three known COVID-19 variants — strains from the U.K., South Africa and Brazil, said Lee.

Public health officials will be carrying out more testing at the home and will be trying to immunize as many residents and staff at the facility as possible, he said.

An earlier immunization effort saw only 21 residents vaccinated as most others were already infected with COVID-19, he said.

“We went in there on Saturday and immunized as many as we could,” he said.

Primary goal is to prevent further spread

The health unit is trying to reach all close contacts of those infected as quickly as possible so they can self-isolate if needed, said Lee.

“One of our primary goals right now is to prevent the spread further, as it gets into households and other hospitals,” Lee said.

Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical of health, said public health officials will also be stepping up infection prevention and control at the home.

Yaffe said the source of infection is still hard to determine as the outbreak at the home is still under investigation.

“At this point, we know a mutation is in there. The 501 mutation that’s associated with increased transmissibility … We don’t know which mutant it is, or which variant of concern,” she said.

“So it’s hard to say right now how widespread it is because we don’t even know exactly what it is.”

Fifty-five people at the nursing home became ill within 48 hours of the first COVID-19 case being identified, said Dr. Colin Lee, the local public health unit’s associate medical officer of health. Lee describes the spread as ‘tremendously rapid.’ (EVAN MITSUI)

Last week, the Canadian Red Cross was deployed to Roberta Place to help with the growing outbreak.

Orillia Soldiers Memorial Hospital, along with other local organizations, has also been asked to help manage it.

The Ministry of Long-Term Care said Thursday that it was working with its health partners to ensure staffing levels at the home were sufficient.

“This development underscores the need for everyone to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19 and help protect our long-term care homes, especially as we find more evidence of new variants in our communities,” said spokeswoman Krystle Caputo.

Taggart says he wants Canadian Forces to come in to help his mother and other patients at the facility in the same way the military assisted a number of Ontario long-term care homes during the first wave of the pandemic.

“They had the military in the spring. What the hell is going on? Where are they? Anything! We need all hands on deck,” Taggart said.

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