'We need the vaccine now,' health official says as COVID-19 variant found in Ontario nursing home

WATCH: Ontario’s Canadian Red Cross vice president Tanya Elliott talks about the organization stepping in to control the outbreak of COVID-19 at Barrie’s Roberta place long-term care home.

An official with the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit is stressing the urgency for COVID-19 vaccines just one day after it was announced that a variant of the virus was discovered in a Barrie, Ont., long-term care home.

The nursing home Roberta Place is the site of a severe outbreak that’s seen 122 residents, 72 staff members and two essential visitors test positive for the virus as of Thursday afternoon. Nineteen people have died.

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Dr. Colin Lee, the local health unit’s associate medical health officer, said 21 Roberta Place residents were immunized against COVID-19 on Saturday but that the ability to bring the vaccine into the home came a “little bit late.” He also said 135 out of 268 staff and caregivers were immunized, the majority being staff.

“If we had vaccine(s) a month before we went in on Saturday, I think this outbreak would be a lot less severe,” he told reporters Thursday.

Everyone who was immunized at Roberta Place received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, according to Lee, but the health unit only received the green light to move that vaccine several days before it was administered.

The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at -70 C, and as a result, it’s difficult to transport between locations.

“It was a number of weeks ago where we were expecting our first batch of Moderna vaccine, we were planning then to go straight to the long-term care homes with it,” Lee said. “It was rerouted, as far as I understand it, from the provincial government, to areas in the province of highest need.”

Lee said the Moderna vaccine ended up going to places like Toronto, where there is a higher incidence of COVID-19, and was used in long-term care homes there.

“With Moderna, we had a lot more flexibility and we would have moved it in right away,” Lee said.

While the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit has identified a COVID-19 variant at Roberta Place, testing is still underway to determine its exact strain. Results are expected to return in the next couple days.

It’s unclear exactly how a variant made its way into the Barrie long-term care home, but health officials have said a staff member came into contact with a person who travelled internationally and tested positive for COVID-19. Officials wouldn’t say where the person travelled but confirmed that it wasn’t to the United Kingdom, South Africa or Brazil, where COVID-19 variants have been found.

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“Variants can obviously occur naturally and can occur anywhere and can already have travelled to a different country,” Lee said.

“There is a likelihood that there was a travel connection, given that the variant strain in Ontario is relatively early, but having said that, we have seen variant strain cases now of persons with no connection to travel.”

The COVID-19 outbreak was declared at Roberta Place on Jan. 8. On Jan. 16, the region’s top doctor, Dr. Charles Gardner, issued an order to allow Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital to temporarily lead the home in controlling the outbreak.

The Canadian Red Cross has also been deployed to help respond to the situation.

This is more contagious. It’s here,” Lee said of the variant. “There’s a good chance that it is going to slowly spread within our area (and) not only within our area but other areas in Ontario. We need to stay vigilant.”

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As of this week, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit has completed its first round of COVID-19 vaccinations in long-term care homes in the region. Nursing homes in Toronto, York, Peel, Windsor-Essex, Ottawa and Durham have also completed their first round of coronavirus immunizations.

On Tuesday, Maj.-Gen. Danny Fortin, who is leading the country’s COVID-19 vaccine logistics, said Canada will get no doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during the week of Jan. 25.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has stressed the province’s need for COVID-19 vaccines. On Tuesday, he issued a plea to U.S. President Joe Biden for help in obtaining more Pfizer vaccines amid a shortage in Canada.

— With files from Global News’ Ryan Rocca

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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