There are 43 confirmed cases of the B117 COVID variant in Ontario and officials are now acknowledging that the strain may not just be more contagious but could also cause “more severe illness” in some people as well.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams shared the latest data during a briefing on Monday afternoon, confirming 34 cases. Updated information from York and Toronto health officials later in the day added nine more cases to the total. It is a big jump from last Thursday when officials were reporting just 15 cases of the so-called UK variant.

Of the 43 cases, 15 are in York Region, 10 are in Toronto, seven are in Simcoe, three are in Peel, three are in Durham and three are in Ottawa. Kingston and Midddlesex-London have also had single cases.

“The key issue is that with the aggressive nature of the UK variant in particular the reasons for being cautious and careful with masking and distancing are enhanced even further because it can be spread with breaches to those protocols in a very short period of time,” Williams warned. “We are going to have to be on our guard but the same measures that protect you from the other strain of COVID-19 will protect you from this one. But you have to do it consistently.”

Ontario has been screening positive samples from people who have returned from abroad for new variants as well as samples collected from large outbreaks.

Efforts, however, are now underway to conduct genomic sequencing on all of the positive samples from Jan. 20 to give officials a snapshot of how widely the variant might be circulating in Ontario but results are expected to take two to three weeks.

Speaking with reporters, Williams said that the variant was probably “moving around in Ontario” before it was discovered earlier this month and may now be “more prevalent than we think.”

For that reason, he said that a recent decline in case counts should be taken with somewhat of a “grain of salt” at this point as there remains a risk that transmission could ramp up again should the variant take hold.

“We don't want to be casual and careless and open up too soon,” he said.

Just ‘assume’ variant is circulating de Villa

Officials have previously said that the B117 variant is at least 56 per cent more contagious but could be as high as 70 per cent more contagious.

At an earlier briefing on Monday afternoon, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said that residents should probably just “assume” that the variant is circulating widely at this point and act accordingly.

That, she said, means limiting your in-person contact with people outside of your household as much as possible.

“We can create barriers to variants spreading widely if we avoid situations where COVID-19 can spread,” she said. “You have heard before what I am going to say next. I hope you will take it to heart more than at any other time. This means keeping apart as much as possible and it means making as few exceptions for contact as we can.”

De Villa said that given the risk posed by the variant in congregate settings, Toronto Pubic Health has reached out to all long-term care homes, retirement homes and complex and continuing care facilities to “review, audit and reinforce” their current infection prevention and control (IPAC) measures.

She said that there are also “heightened practices for case and contact management when there is reason to believe” a given case may involve the B117 variant.

“You know I am sympathetic to the sacrifices and to the strain of life in the COVID-19 pandemic but for now the time has passed for focussing on impositions, inconveniences or frustrations,” she said. “This current situation in the simplest terms is not good. For now we need to focus on things as they are and do everything we can to make sure that things don’t get worse.”