The mystery of why virtually all of the seniors and 74 workers became infected with COVID-19 at Roberta Place long-term care is now becoming clear — one of the new variants of the novel coronavirus was behind the outbreak.

Six residents at the home in Barrie, Ont. have now been confirmed to be infected with one of the new and highly contagious variants.

“This has been a very tragic and heartbreaking outbreak,” Dr. Colin Lee, Associate Medical Officer of Health at Simcoe-Muskoka District Health said Thursday at a press conference.

“Just to give you some context, it’s a facility of about 130 residents. We learned of this January 8th, we declared an outbreak, [ and] we had upwards of about 55 people becoming ill within 48 hours.”

Health officials don’t know which of the variants it is yet, as the first test only detects specific mutations, which some of the variants share, including the U.K. variant (B.1.1.7) and the South Africa variant. Officials say we’ll have more exact answers in a few days.

In the meantime, the virus has swept through the long-term care home, infecting 94 per cent of the residents.

Debbie Rinas’ mother is a resident at the home who fell ill. She’s now on oxygen, but is stable. The speed of the outbreak was breathtaking, Rinas said, and she knew something was different.

“This is not the same thing we were dealing with in the first [wave],” she told CTV News.

The care home had managed to largely avoid COVID-19 during the first wave, she said, and “it just doesn’t make sense” that the entire home would become infected so quickly this time around.

One hundred and twenty-two residents have active cases of COVID-19. Twenty-five have died, including Bryan Graham’s mother.

“We didn’t find out that my mother was positive until the evening she passed,” Graham told CTV News. His mother was 85 years old, and was showing symptoms for days before her death, he added.

Doctors suspect the virus was brought in by someone who worked there who had a close contact who had recently travelled outside of the country.

The worker followed all precautions and got tested regularly, but was asymptomatic at first. She quarantined as soon as she began to experience symptoms, but it was too late — and she’s one of those believed to be infected with the variant.

“This first discovered case is one of the six cases that have tested positive for the mutation that is most common in the various streams,” Lee said.

Lee added that there was no travel connection to the U.K., South Africa, or Brazil, which are the origins for three of the most concerning variants at present.

The question of whether this could’ve been avoided or not is haunting. The home was supposed to receive a shipment of the Moderna vaccine to vaccinate staff and residents, but it was sent elsewhere instead.

Vaccines did arrive — but too late to stop most of the residents from becoming infected.

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

He said they got Pfizer vaccines into the care home starting this past Saturday.

“We immunized 21 residents. As you can appreciate, most were already infected,” he said. “We did immunize 135 out of 268 staff and caregivers, the majority being staff.”

Graham believes if the long-term care home had received vaccines earlier, it could’ve made a difference.

“If they were in there a month ago with the vaccine, I’m sure [it would have] prevented a lot of deaths,” he said. “It comes down to prioritizing with the government, and once again I feel that, they’ve been down this road 11 months ago, it’s disappointing that the long-term care facilities […] weren’t made a priority.

“We didn’t learn from the first wave, and that is unfortunate.”

This is one of some 430 outbreaks in senior’s homes across Canada.

“Right now over 40 per cent of our long-term care homes and then well over 100 additional retirement homes are currently in outbreak,” Dr. Samir Sinha, Director of Geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital, told CTV News. “Ontario is not doing well during its second wave. In fact, we actually think we’re going to eclipse the number of deaths we had during our first wave across Ontario care homes.”

It’s not just vaccines that could provide a solution — advocates are pointing to the need for paid sick days for staff to allow workers who are ill to stay home without fear of losing their income.

And then there is the tool of rapid testing. It’s only available in some long-term care facilities so far, like Maxville Manor in Ottawa, which can run a test in 15 minutes.

The not for profit home says it’s been testing staff weekly, and essential visitors and family every time they come in. The rapid test has been almost completely accurate. Four-hundred and fifty tests have been performed, missing only one infected person.

So far this winter, the home has avoided a deadly outbreak like those hitting so many other care homes. Only one resident and one staff member have contracted COVID-19.

Amy Porteous, CEO of Maxville Manor, says the rapid testing is “phenomenal.”

“I think it’s a real game changer for long-term care,” she told CTV News. “I think that long-term care homes and retirement facilities across the nation should really be thinking hard about implementing rapid tests.”

One example that drives home how important the rapid testing has been came just this week, Porteous said. A staff member came into work and tested positive via rapid testing. She was retested to be sure, and when it still came out positive, she was sent home to quarantine.

She had a PCR test done, and two days later, the results confirmed those of the rapid test.

“Now if we didn’t have the rapid test, she would have been in the home for those two days, and helping to spread the [virus],” Porteous said.

She believes the strategy could help catch outbreaks before they happen.

“I definitely think that if we had the ability to roll [out] that rapid testing earlier, we probably would have seen a reduction in the amount of outbreaks that we have.”

In the face of the new variants, which are more transmissible than the original virus, the need to keep COVID-19 out of long-term care is higher than ever.

Lee said that the discovery that a variant had played a role in the outbreak at Roberta Place was sobering, and underline how dangerous they can be.

“I’m going to be honest with you, I think everyone is more fearful today than they were yesterday morning,” Lee said. “This is more contagious, it’s here, there’s a good chance that it is going to slowly spread […] not only within our area but other areas in Ontario. We need to stay vigilant.”

Testing is currently underway in other seniors’ homes to find out if any of the new variants are behind any other massive outbreaks in long-term care. 

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