U.K. variant of COVID-19 likely already in Windsor, Ont., hospital chief of staff says

The chief of staff of Windsor Regional Hospital says officials are still awaiting results of DNA sequencing, but he says existing data suggests that the U.K. variant or possibly some other mutation of the coronavirus is present in the southwestern Ontario border city.

Dr. Wassim Saad is expecting confirmation within the next “week or so.”

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Saad points to a test positivity rate that has more-than-doubled in four weeks, a widening range of patients infected with COVID-19 (including a three-year-old admitted to hospital last week), and patient stories of “very minimal — if any — contact with the outside world” as cause for serious concern.

As of Jan. 12, 14 cases of the U.K. variant had been confirmed in Ontario, the majority of which were tied to Toronto, York Region and Peel Region.

Ontario’s associate medical officer of health Dr. Barbara Yaffe, citing data in an update on projections from the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, warned earlier this week that the new variant is probably at least 56 per cent more transmissible.

The update from the advisory table also stresses that the new variant could “drive much higher case counts, ICU occupancy and mortality if community transmission occurs.”

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“It was a few weeks ago, just before the holidays when we started to notice much higher rates of transmission,” he said.

The Windsor region has been particularly hard-hit by the virus throughout the pandemic.

Over the summer months, the region saw a surge in cases, largely tied to the agri-food sector, particularly among migrant workers.

More recently, a rapid rise in cases prompted public health officials to order all schools in the region to close as of Dec. 14. Overwhelmed hospitals in the region have also had to start sending some patients to Chatham and Sarnia.

A trailer outside the Metropolitan campus, used to house bodies. via Windsor Regional Hospital

Saad says the ICU had an average population of patients in their 70s during the first wave, but the average is now in the 50s. Deaths from COVID-19 include a 27-year-old man, Weng James, who was remembered as a leader and caregiver, according to CBC Windsor.

“Our ICUs are at or near capacity almost every day,” Saad says.

“And over the last two weeks because we did run out of morgue space at the Metropolitan campus, we did start using the trailer to house bodies.”

Saad says one of the main concerns with the U.K. variant is its impact on the “doubling rate.” During the first wave, the number of infections would double roughly every 40 days or so.

“With the new variant, the rate is less than half of that. Some estimates are 10 to 15 days for a doubling rate and that is something that’s consistent with the rate of rise of cases in our community. And if you look at the projections especially for Windsor-Essex, it’s looking like that’s where it’s headed in the next couple of weeks.”

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While anecdotal, Saad also points to stories of infections resulting from very brief contact, saying that they only contact they’ve had was with someone delivery groceries or seeing a relative for less than five minutes.

He acknowledged that some patients “may not want to tell the whole story” or “may forget what their exposures were,” but “when you start to hear over and over again, you start to think maybe this isn’t just one or two people telling us ‘we had less than five minutes of contact.’”

“We’re starting to see a lot more of these scenarios where it’s very minimal contact and they acquire the virus.”

According to the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, the moving average of cases of the past seven days was 54.3 on Dec. 4.

On Jan. 4, it was 214.1.

Saad says he requested “a few weeks ago” that some samples be sent to the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg and was told that Public Health Ontario would be doing random samplings.

“I followed up on that request about a week ago and was told that about 300 positive samples from the Windsor-Essex area were being analyzed by Public Health Ontario with DNA sequencing to see if we are dealing with the UK variant or any other variant,” he says.

“We’re waiting at this time for DNA analysis within the next week or so. It could be another variant or another mutation that’s leading to the efficient spread in our community.”

Click to play video '‘Tired and broken’: ICU nurse reflects on pandemic toll' 4:50 ‘Tired and broken’: ICU nurse reflects on pandemic toll

‘Tired and broken’: ICU nurse reflects on pandemic toll

However, University of Toronto epidemiologist Colin Furness suggests that gatherings over the holidays could still be playing a role in case counts.

“Perhaps I was speaking hopefully rather than analytically, but post-holiday is a more likely explanation because the timing fits,” he told Global News.

“The new variant ought to take some time to become established as the dominant, in the same way that every time COVID comes into a new community, numbers are low for quite some time before they get very high — at which point that happens quickly. I’d expect the same pattern for a new variant.”

Still, he noted that “luck plays a role,” and if the new variant is involved in superspreader events, then “it could move very quickly.”

The impact of Detroit, Michigan — separated from Windsor, Ont., by a river no wider than four kilometres — could also play a factor.

“High prevalence there would suggest it could be crossing with essential workers at high rates. And what proportion of Windsor residents have been to Europe in the past month?” he asked.

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WECHU’s medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed told Global News that movement over the holidays and the U.S. border are both concerns locally.

“I haven’t seen the data myself directly, but what we have heard that the mobility data basically showed that up to 70 percent of the Windsor-Essex residents were mobile during that time,” he said.

“And my concern was even before going into the holidays, because a lot of our people use Detroit airport to travel outside to anywhere in the world or even to different parts of USA.”

He says fairly early on in the pandemic, he issued an order to have health care professionals in Windsor-Essex work on only one side of the border.

“But we know that there are other non-health care worker that are crossing the border. We have got a significant traffic with the transportation industry as well.”

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A report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Friday warns that modelling suggests the B.1.1.7, the U.K. variant, could become the predominant variant in the U.S. in March.

According to the CDC, 10 states are already confirmed to have the “more highly transmissible variant” U.K. variant.

Michigan is not among the ten states, but two of its neighbours are: Wisconsin and Indiana.

Still, Michigan’s top health official Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said last week that the variant is “very likely” already in the state, according to NBC-affiliate Local 4.

Regardless, Furness notes that a definitive answer about the variant’s existence in Windsor will come once genotype testing is complete.

— with files from Global News’ Gabby Rodrigues and The Canadian Press.

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