Ontario officials are reporting eight new cases of the UK variant of COVID-19 and they say that they have been unable to find a travel link with three of them, suggesting that the more contagious strain may already be circulating in the community.

Health Minister Christine Elliott confirmed the latest cases in a message posted to Twitter on Tuesday morning.

There have now been 14 individuals confirmed to have been infected by the UK variant in the province, though Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barabara Yaffe told reporters at a subsequent briefing that it is “very likely we have more we are not aware of” given that a relatively small proportion of samples are actually being examined for mutations.

“The variant is already here. We know the data shows it is probably at least 56 per cent more transmissible and at this point as I said with three of our cases we don’t have a travel history. If that is confirmed we have evidence then of community transmission and that is a very serious concern that the vaccine will not be able to address quickly enough,” she said.

Yaffe told reporters that Public Health Ontario is currently conducting genomic sequencing on about 500 to 600 samples per week to look for new variants.

Genomic sequencing involves analyzing an individual positive PCR test sample and mapping out its complex genetic profile.

Public Health Ontario has, however, told CP24 that is currently only testing samples “with a history of international travel or who have had contact with someone with a history of international travel” as well as samples “related to a known or suspected superspreading event.”

York Region has seen half of the confirmed cases so far

In a statement Tuesday evening, public health officials confirmed that seven cases of the U.K. variant have been confirmed in York Region.

In a statement, York Region said its health unit was first made aware of a confirmed case on Jan. 2, in an individual who had returned from the U.K. and tested positive on Dec. 22. Three family members that person had dinner with subsequently tested positive for the variant.  All four live in King Township.

Two people from Georgina and one person from Richmond Hill have also tested positive for the UK variant, none of them with any connection to travel.

“This serves as an important reminder all individuals arriving from international travel must self-isolate for 14 days as part of the federal Quarantine Act even if you do not have any symptoms of COVID-19,” the York Region statement reads. “York Region Public Health reminds residents about the importance of providing all history of contacts and contact information if you test positive for COVID-19; this is crucial to the prevention and control of this infection.”

Provincial health officials have previously said that the first two confirmed cases in Ontario did not immediately provide a full history of contacts and it was only in subsequent interviews that officials learned they had been in contact with a person who had recently travelled to the U.K.

Outside of York Region, cases have also been detected in Toronto, Durham Region, Peel Region, and Ottawa.

‘Grave concerns’ about new variant amid sobering projections

The new cases confirmed on Tuesday come as the Ford government releases new modelling, which suggests that COVID-19 cases in Ontario could double every 10 days by March if the more contagious strain takes route in the community.

Currently, cases are doubling every 35 to 40 days.

“A new variant could drive much higher case counts, ICU occupancy and mortality if community transmission occurs,” Epidemiologist Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the province’s COVID-19 science table, warned. “The doubling time for cases could drop by more than two thirds and just to be clear this variant is already in Ontario. It is not a hypothetical. The variant is here; it is just depending now on how fast it spreads.”

Brown said that officials believe the UK variant is at least 56 per cent more contagious but he said that it is possible that number could be as high as 75 per cent.

He said that there are already a number of areas in the province experiencing a “very dramatic growth in cases” similar to what was seen in the United Kingdom as the strain started to spread this fall.

That, he said, could “suggest that we might already be seeing this new variant in some of these communities.”

He said that if the strain does spread within the community we will likely see a “scary almost vertical sort of curve” by the end of February with cases growing six to seven per cent per day.

That sort of case growth could, in turn, translate into approximately 40,000 new cases a day, according to the new modelling.

“This new variant is not more lethal but because it spreads so much more quickly once it gets out into the community there is no question that we will have more cases and more death,” Brown said. “People will die from the virus itself and from the overloaded health system that is unable to respond to their needs.”

There is no information suggesting that the new variant, also known as B117, is any more deadly or would be immune to COVID-19 vaccines.

But with the province’s hospital system already showing signs of buckling as it struggles to care for record numbers of COVID patients, any significant increase in cases would be a concern.

“I am gravely concerned about this new variant and it is not just the UK variant. When we see a significant per cent positivity in Windsor you have to wonder about variants coming from the United States, there is a South African variant in Alberta and it is possible, or even likely, that this (the UK variant) is already spreading in our community, which means things like closing our airports and having mobility restrictions inter provincially might not be effective even if they become necessary,” Dr. Michael Warner, the medical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital, told CP24 on Tuesday afternoon.

Yaffe said that five of the new cases were all connected to a recent traveller from the United Kingdom. She said that public health officials are continuing to look for possible travel links with the three other cases.