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All positive COVID tests in Ontario are now screened for variant strains

Local medical officer of health has been advocating for added screening and genome sequencing since learning U.K. variant caused deadly outbreak at Roberta Place
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As of Wednesday, all the lab-confirmed positive COVID-19 tests in Ontario are being screened for known variants. 

The province has implemented this measure in its six-point plan aimed at containing the more transmissible known variants of the coronavirus. So far, the province has confirmed 106 cases of the B.1.1.7 (UK) variant strain and one case of the B.1.351 (South African) variant strain in Ontario test results. 

As of Feb. 3, all positive COVID-19 tests will be screened within two or three days of initial processing, according to the provincial government. 

“Public Health Ontario will also undertake to co-ordinate genomic sequencing efforts to identify new and emerging variants by sequencing up to 10 per cent of all positive tests by Feb. 17,” stated a news release from the Ontario government. 

Testing for a variant strain is a two-step process that involves first screening the positive COVID test for mutation and, if the screening is positive, completing gene sequencing to identify which variant strain is present. 

In the Simcoe-Muskoka region, the B.1.1.7 variant has been confirmed as the cause of an outbreak at Roberta Place long-term care home in Barrie. Indeed, it has proven more virulent as it spread quickly to both residents and staff.

Within 48 hours of receiving the first positive result in a staff member, there were 55 other cases of COVID-19 in the home. 

Since Jan. 8, there have been 229 cases (including all but one single resident) in residents and Roberta Place staff. There were more cases reported in caregivers (including one death) and in staff brought from other agencies in to assist during the outbreak. Sixty-six residents had died as of Wednesday.

Since the outbreak began with a B.1.1.7 case, the local medical officer of health, Dr. Charles Gardner, said he was confident every case associated with the outbreak was the B.1.1.7 variant strain.

Not every COVID-19 positive result from Roberta Place was tested for the variant strain. 

In Simcoe-Muskoka to date, as of Wednesday, there had been 90 lab-confirmed cases of the UK B.1.1.7 strain. There are two other outbreaks, one at Bradford Valley Care Community and the other at Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care (Penetanguishene), both in Simcoe County, that are linked to the B.1.1.7 variant strain. 

For two weeks, Gardner has been calling for more screening and testing for the variant strains, and the region’s associate medical officer of health, Dr. Colin Lee, said the health unit was sending test results from Bradford and Barrie areas as well as some from other long-term care homes in the region for variant strain screening in an effort to learn as soon as possible where the variant strain is spreading. 

The five other parts of the province’s plan for containing the new variant strains include mandatory testing for travellers on arrival at Toronto Pearson Airport starting Feb. 1. 

Stronger case and contact management is also in the works, with the province supporting public health units with contact tracers to make sure any cases and their contacts are reached as soon as possible and monitored throughout their quarantine period. 

The final three points in the government plan include: 

  • Maintaining public health measures, specifically lifting public health and workplace safety measures “will not be considered” until more information on variant spread is known. 
  • Enhancing protection for vulnerable populations by continuing to accelerate vaccinations of residents in long-term care homes, high-risk retirement homes and First Nations elder care homes depending on the available supply of vaccinations. The province will also be doing more antigen screening (rapid testing) in these facilities as well as at essential workplaces, schools and congregate living settings. 
  • Leveraging data by building a real-time analytics dashboard to allow the province’s public health officials to track the spread of emerging variants in Ontario