Ontario identifies first cases of COVID-19 U.K. variant in the province

Ontario announced on Saturday its first two confirmed cases in the province of the COVID-19 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom.

Ontario is the first province to identify the new COVID-19 variant.

The confirmed cases identified are from a couple from Durham Region with no known travel history, exposure or high-risk contacts, Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, said in a news release on Saturday. Durham Region is east of Toronto.

Both individuals have been informed and are now in self-isolation as per public health protocols, it said.

“This further reinforces the need for Ontarians to stay home as much as possible and continue to follow all public health advice, including the provincewide shutdown measures beginning today,” Yaffe said.

“Durham Region Health Department has conducted case and contact investigation and Ontario is working in collaboration with our federal counterparts at the Public Health Agency of Canada.”

The variant has now been detected in multiple countries beyond Britain, including Denmark, Belgium, Australia and the Netherlands.

With inbound international travel, it is not unexpected to have identified the new variant in Ontario, the news release said.

No evidence new variant more severe: PHAC

The federal government currently has a monitoring program in place with the provinces and territories to identify new COVID-19 variants in the country, such as the ones identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

“While early data suggests that these new variants may be more transmissible, to date there is no evidence that they cause more severe disease or have any impact on antibody response or vaccine effectiveness,” the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said in a statement on Saturday.

Canada halted all flights arriving from the United Kingdom on Dec. 20 until Jan. 6, 2021, after the new COVID-19 variant was first detected. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“More research is required to confirm these findings, and the Canadian and global medical, public health and research communities are actively evaluating these mutations.”

As monitoring continues, PHAC says it is expected that other cases of this variant, along with other variants of concern, will be found in Canada.

“Furthermore, as these two cases did not travel outside of Canada, it is important to follow public health measures and limit contacts with others, to reduce the transmission of the virus and any of its variants in communities,” it said.

“Recognizing the potential increased risk that inbound international travellers may pose with this new variant, the province continues to call on the federal government to urgently partner with Ontario to implement testing at Toronto Pearson International Airport.”

Earlier this week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the federal government wasn’t doing enough to protect Ontario from international travellers, suggesting they’re a problematic source of COVID-19 spread in the province.

However, based on the provincial government’s own statistics, travel-related COVID-19 cases represent a small number of infections. 

Less than 2 per cent of all COVID-19 cases reported in Canada have been a result of international travel, according to PHAC.

“Regardless of whether federal support is forthcoming, the Ontario government is prepared to act on its own to implement an airport testing program,” the provincial news release said.

“We hope this troubling news invites [the federal government] to reconsider their position,” the office for Ontario’s Minister of Health Christine Elliott wrote in an emailed statement to CBC News.

“We’ve long stood ready to work in partnership to implement enhanced testing but will do so alone if needed.”

Travellers now face additional health screening

The federal government halted all flights arriving from the United Kingdom on Dec. 20 until Jan. 6, 2021, in response to concerns about the COVID-19 variant. 

All travellers are now being asked additional health screening questions to help identify whether their travel itinerary included a country of concern. They also must now present their quarantine plan to the Quarantine Officer at the point of entry to Canada, and those with an inadequate plan will be directed to a federal quarantine facility, PHAC says.

PHAC said it also monitors travellers’ compliance with quarantine and uses law enforcement officers to verify compliance during the 14-day quarantine.

Individuals who are not complying with the quarantine requirements can face fines of up to $750,000 or six months in jail.

“Travellers who arrived in Canada from a country of concern prior to Dec. 20 are reminded to complete their full quarantine period and to get tested even if symptoms are mild and report their travel history to local assessment centres,” PHAC said in the statement.

Ontario under provincewide lockdown starting Saturday

Ontario entered a provincewide lockdown at 12:01 a.m. on Boxing Day in a bid to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The province has reported more than 2,000 cases 12 days in a row, including 2,142 new positive tests on Saturday and 2,159 cases on Christmas Day.

During those days, Ontario reported 81 additional deaths.

The new measures mean restaurants in the province can only provide takeout and delivery.

Meanwhile, the provincial government is continuing to urge Ontarians to not gather for holidays and to follow public health guidelines.

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