Still no date from provincial officials when Simcoe Muskoka students will return to in-person learning

Ontario's top doctor says UK variant of COVID is being closely monitored

When kids in Simcoe-Muskoka can return to school is still an unanswered question, and at a media briefing Monday, the Education Minister was asked how much of a factor the UK variant of COVID-19 will come into play.

The variant is linked to a devastating outbreak at Roberta Place long-term care in Barrie that has resulted in the deaths of more than 60 residents.

Stephen Lecce passed the question to Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, who said a study is being done to determine the prevalence of variants in Ontario and in the community, and he hoped to have results within the next day.

“The issue in Barrie is an institutional outbreak, unfortunately,” said Williams. “And they are taking many steps to try and contain and deal with it. Unfortunately, there’s been a number of lives lost as well, as we’ve seen the impact of how the variant can work in a congregate setting.”

Williams said the question under the medical officer of health (Simcoe- Muskoka) Dr. Gardner is–is it out in the community?

“We are doing some further testing trying to ascertain if it has been spread beyond the institution with all the controls and measures in place. So far, we haven’t seen that. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to look for it.”

Though most of the variant cases are linked to Roberta Place, the local health unit said on January 26 that two cases aren’t connected.

“Our investigation into these preliminary results is early, but it appears that two persons have no known link to those individuals we recently identified as positive for the United Kingdom (U.K.) variant,” Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit said in a release.

“This certainly makes us concerned that the variant may be more widespread, and that in turn means that we need to really take public health measures that prevent spread of the virus much more to heart.”

Gardner had initially said that Barrie was ground zero for the new UK variant.

The medical officer of health for the Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington health unit said last week a Kingston-area resident who contracted the UK variant of COVID had travelled to the Simcoe Muskoka region on business and is believed to have been infected there.

Williams said testing asymptomatic students in a timely fashion in any area is also important.

“If it were to be positive, then we would screen that for the 501 variants to ascertain as quickly as possible to inform ourselves whether the variant is actually into our schools or within school-aged children,” explained Gardner.

The province has said students from Peel, York, Toronto and Windsor-Essex are scheduled to return to in-person learning on Feb. 10, but Lecce, when asked at Monday’s media briefing if that date was set in stone, he said he hoped to have all students back in school as soon as it is safe to do so.