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Toronto Public Health releases new data on variants of concern

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Toronto Public Health (TPH) has added new data to the COVID-19: Status of Cases in Toronto dashboard to illustrate how cases of variants of concern (VOC) are spreading in Toronto.

The data provides further insight into VOC in the city, including the total number of confirmed VOC cases that have screened positive for a mutation, number of cases broken down by the specific variant and source of infection as well as case counts by gender, severity and age.

As of February 17, there have been 57 cases confirmed for VOC reported in Toronto. Of these cases, 56 have tested positive for the UK B.1.1.7 strain and one has been confirmed to be the Brazilian B.1 strain. There are 341 cases that have screened positive for a mutation, which suggests it is likely a VOC. Public Health Ontario is currently conducting whole genome sequencing to determine and identify the specific variant. The dashboard will be updated by 3 p.m. today to reflect these data.

TPH is releasing this data to help the public understand the impact of VOC cases on the city, and to inform public health actions. Like all data published on the City’s COVID-19 platform, this information undergoes privacy reviews to ensure that data are not identifiable and remains confidential. Due to the time required to identify and sequence specimens, there may be a delay between case episode date and date of VOC confirmation, and posting on the website. The Public Health Ontario Laboratory continues to perform additional testing on all positive COVID-19 results to determine if they screen positive for a VOC.

A variant of concern is a mutation of the SARS-CoV-2 genome that has been reported to spread more easily and may affect the efficacy of vaccines. Research has recently shown that some VOCs, such as the B.1.1.7 strain that originated in the United Kingdom, has been linked to increased risk of hospitalization and death.

As Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, outlined at yesterday’s COVID-19 update with media, the variants of concern mean the city faces a deceptively dangerous situation. Right now, the case count numbers do not seem bad, but today’s variant count is the tip of an iceberg. By the time the confirmed case counts are high enough to cause concern, it will be too late, and the city will likely be in a third wave COVID-19 spread.

“While there has been a downward trend in many of the key indicators, I am highly concerned about where the pandemic is headed. Toronto and Ontario continue to report increased numbers of variant cases,” said Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health. “Variants of concern are now present in most congregate settings in Toronto. We are in a precarious situation and face exponential growth, due to the increased transmissibility of the variants. I urge people to take action now. Take the steps for self-protection which we all know well by now but above all create as much distance as you possibly can between yourself and anyone you don’t live with,” said de Villa.

Examples of the seriousness of VOC include:

  • In Germany on February 16, the Minister of Health said the proportion of the B.1.1.7 variant there rose from just under 6 per cent to more than 22 per cent in two weeks, and that the proportion of cases with the variant are doubling every week.
  • Newfoundland and Labrador, which has seen a total of just over 700 cases throughout the entire pandemic, suddenly has almost 300 cases linked to the UK variant.
  • The variant was starting to spread in the UK last September, however it was not identified at the time, so it continued to spread throughout the fall. In mid-November, daily cases in the UK were around 15,000 per day, and by mid-December they skyrocketed to peak above 50,000 per day.

“We have worked to make sure people have as much information as possible about COVID-19 in our community. The updated dashboard will allow everyone to see the status of COVID-19 variants in our city,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory. “Our public health officials have been clear about the risk of a third wave. Despite the huge dislocation the pandemic has caused for people and businesses, the worst mistake we could make right now is to ignore the advice of our medical experts and to begin to re-open too quickly. We absolutely do not want to find ourselves opening things up, even slightly and then having to close down again a few weeks from now. With the promise of vaccinations upon us, we need to ensure this lockdown is the last one. We can do that by not reopening too quickly and letting the variants get out of control, by continuing to follow the public health advice – wearing a mask, keeping our distance, and staying home as much as possible – and by being ready to roll out those vaccines as soon as the federal and provincial governments can provide additional supply.,” said Tory.

As Toronto continues to experience increased cases of VOCs, it is more important than ever to follow the steps of self-protection. Residents are once again strongly encouraged to limit their contact to household members only and to stay at home as much as possible. When leaving for essential outings such as medical appointments, food shopping, school, essential work, or for physical exercise, it is critical to stay at least two metres (six feet) apart from others and wear a mask. Frequent and proper handwashing is a must, as is staying home if feeling unwell.

The VOC data can be seen on the COVID-19: Status of Cases in Toronto dashboard. Daily counts of confirmed and screen positive VOC will be posted by 3 p.m. each day. Further information about age, gender and severity will be updated every Wednesday by 3 p.m.

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