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Mission Institution headed for 'explosive' COVID-19 outbreak, prison doctor says

Last Updated Apr 8, 2020 at 3:03 pm PDT

With nine confirmed COVID-19 cases Mission Institution is headed an exponential growth of its outbreak, a doctor who works in the prison says. (iStock Photo)

Lack of testing, crowded prisons and centralized planning make federal institutions 'ripe' for outbreaks: doctor

Correctional Service Canada says it is implementing best practices under health official advice

Provincial prisons have granted early releases; not clear if feds will follow

MISSION (NEWS 1130) – As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in a Mission prison rises, an infectious disease doctor who works in the institution says the inmate population is on track for an “explosive” outbreak if more isn’t done to contain it.

“We have to be acting expeditiously, or we’re going to have a very, very uncontrollable situation on our hands,” Dr. John Farley told NEWS 1130.

“The virus is going to get ahead of us while we fiddle.”

Virus outbreak in Mission prison could explode

Correctional Service Canada confirmed Wednesday that its medium security prison at Mission Institution in the Fraser Valley now has 11 confirmed cases of the coronavirus after the first two cases were announced last week.

If current practices continue, the institution will see “exponential increases” in the coming weeks, Farley said.

Lack of tests likely hiding scale of outbreak: doctor

As of Wednesday afternoon, the correctional service was reporting 41 tests of inmates across its 11 B.C. institutions. In addition to the 11 positives from Mission Institution, there were 12 negatives and 18 tests pending province-wide.

Mission Institution is comprised of a medium security prison with capacity for 216 inmates and an minimum-security facility with capacity for 324. Despite the positive tests next door, no tests have been reported from the minimum security prison.

The lack of broad testing is likely concealing a much worse outbreak at the Mission Prison, Farley said, citing numbers from Iceland showing half of those infected with the virus present either mild symptoms or none at all.

“I am very much concerned that there are many more cases in there – and I’m also very much concerned that the measures we have in there are not appropriate,” he said.

The virus won’t ‘wait on bureaucracy’

The centralized power structure of the federal corrections service is preventing local administrators from tailoring their response to the specific needs of their prison populations, he said.

“We cannot assume that a prison is a prison is a prison,” said Farley, a consultant contracted by the agency to help treat inmates with HIV, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.

The needs of elderly and ill inmates in a de facto long-term-care home inside Abbotsford’s Matsqui Complex are very different from those bunking together in a 50-person wing at another institution, he said.

But, Farley said, prison staff are only getting broad directives from Ottawa when they need the power to implement policies for screening, social distancing and hygiene that are specific to each unit of every facility.

“It’s too centralized and we don’t have the luxury of waiting,” he said. “This virus, like lots of viruses in these situations, doesn’t wait on time, doesn’t wait on bureaucracy.”

Crowded prisons ‘ripe’ for massive outbreak

Prisons, with their tight quarters and vulnerable populations, are “ripe” for potentially catastrophic outbreaks, the infectious disease doctor said.

Farley echoed more than 100 medical professionals who, in an open letter, called on officials to release some inmates from Canadian jails in order to meet physical distancing guidelines.

Provincial and territorial prisons in Ontario, B.C. and the Northwest Territories have freed some inmates to make room during the pandemic.

Correctional service ‘following strict protocols’

A correctional service spokesperson provided a statement to NEWS 1130, saying no one at the agency was available for an interview.

“We are closely and carefully following directions from public health officials, while following strict protocols to avoid further spread in the institution,” Christina Tricomi said in an email, adding the agency has implemented new practices for physical distancing, self-monitoring, cleaning and personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff.

Symptomatic inmates are being isolated and tested, while people who have come into contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases are being monitored and tested “as needed.”

Federal prisons have also suspended inmate visits, temporary releases and transfers between prisons, Tricomi said.

She also said the agency is “closely monitoring current inventory of PPE … and continues to order PPE to maintain an adequate supply for staff and inmates.”

The correctional service is continuing to free inmates scheduled for release, while considering freeing more inmates, Tricomi said.

“We are working closely with the Parole Board of Canada to examine all options with respect to the safe release of offenders into the community,” she said. “We are currently conducting an analysis of the offender population to be in a position to make evidence-based recommendations.”

Dozens of prison staff test positive, union says

On Saturday, the Union of Correctional Officers raised concerns about the number supplies testing kits available and PPE such as masks and face shields “running low.”

“PPE requirements to perform our work safely continue to be a source of anxiety among the membership,” the union said in a press release.

At the time, the union said none of its members had tested positive for the virus. As of Wednesday afternoon, the union said 49 of its members (all in Ontario and Quebec) had confirmed COVID-19 infections.