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COVID-19 infects 58 people in Metro Vancouver jails, vaccine plan unclear

Last Updated Jan 24, 2021 at 12:15 am PDT

FILE -- Specimens to be tested for COVID-19 are seen at a lab, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, March 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

35 inmates, one staff have tested positive for COVID-19 at Surrey Pretrial Services Centre

21 inmates, one staff have tested positive at North Fraser Pretrial Services Centre

The plan to vaccinate staff and prisoners at provincial, federal facilities remains unclear as cases spike

SURREY (NEWS 1130) — COVID-19 outbreaks at two Lower Mainland jails have spread to 56 prisoners and two staff, and it remains unclear where corrections officers and inmates fit in to the province’s vaccination plan.

An outbreak at Surrey Pretrial Services Centre was declared Wednesday. As of Saturday 35 people being held at that facility have contracted the virus along with one staff member who has tested positive. On Friday, an outbreak was declared at North Fraser Pretrial Services Centre after 20 inmates tested positive. Two more cases were identified Saturday, one staff and one prisoner.

Fraser Health says the facilities are working with the province to try to contain the outbreaks.

“Public Health is working with BC Corrections and the Provincial Health Services Authority to identify any individuals who may have had contact with any of the individuals in custody who tested positive. Following provincial health guidelines, Public Health will contact these individuals directly to determine if they are symptomatic and that appropriate self-isolation measures are being taken,” says a spokesperson in a statement.

RELATED: Some provinces yet to say when jail inmates to be vaccinated against COVID-19

Combined, there are roughly 600 people incarcerated in these facilities either awaiting bail, trial, or sentencing. Province-wide, only 30 per cent of people in jail have been sentenced, while the rest of the population is made up of “people in custody pending outstanding court matters.”

Corrections officers at these centres are members of the BCGEU, and the union’s president says it’s not clear when staff in provincial jails will be vaccinated.

The province’s immunization plan, released Friday, uses age as the primary way to determine priority. This replaces a prior plan that saw workers as well as inmates included in Phase 2, meaning they would have been given shots in February or March. Phase 2 now includes “vulnerable populations in select congregated settings,” which may or may not include inmates and guards.

“We have members who work in group homes, who work in shelters who work in supportive housing, and of course who work in corrections in our provincial jails. So does that include them? And that’s the clarity that I think our members are concerned about and we as their union are concerned about,” says BCGEU president Stephanie Smith.

When it comes to how the union responds to an outbreak, Smith says the priority is the health and safety of members.

“What we do is we hold the employer to account in terms of ensuring that risk is mitigated in any way possible,” she says.

“We are doing outreach to our members who work there to see what we can do to support them. It doesn’t change our job, our job is to make sure that our members are kept as safe as possible when they’re at work.”

One of the things Smith says the union has advocated for, and will continue to push for, is having more Plexiglass barriers installed.

Meanwhile, advocacy groups and experts are calling for workers and those incarcerated in federal prisons to be vaccinated as soon as possible, citing the duty of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC)  to provide essential healthcare.

“Canada has prioritized vaccinations for those who are most vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, and who would suffer the most adverse impacts if they did: older people, seniors, people with chronic health conditions, and those who are immunocompromised. These vulnerabilities are commonplace inside our prisons,” an open letter reads.

“In order to enable transparency and accountability, we call on you to provide concrete timelines for vaccination, clear criteria for how groups are being prioritized, and insight into how institutions and sub-populations are being chosen.”

Six-hundred of the country’s “highest risk inmates” were slated to receive the vaccine in a pilot project which began Jan. 8.

Staff, however, will be prioritized based on guidelines in the province or territory in which they live.

“We are working closely with provinces to ensure vaccines are prioritized for these workers in the first phase,” reads a release from CSC. 

The open letter released this week, signed by groups that include The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, The John Howard Society, and the BC Civil Liberties Association also demands an independent inquiry into how federal prisons have responded to COVID-19.

“Since December, we have seen more COVID-19 cases inside prisons than in the preceding eight months and infection rates for prisoners are staggeringly higher than the infection rate in Canada,” it reads.

“It is evident that whatever actions that have been taken thus far to protect prisoners, staff, and surrounding communities have been insufficient.”

Nation-wide 1,231 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 and four have died, since the start of the pandemic. There are roughly 13,000 people in federal custody, making the positivity rate about 9.5 per cent. The rate for people who are not in prison is 4.3 per cent