COVID outbreaks in correctional centres ‘really prominent’ in terms of new case production, doctors hear

Saskatchewan Penitentiary. Herald file photo

Saskatchewan’s correctional centres are facing COVID-19 “outbreaks of concern” driven by COVID variants, the province’s physicians heard Thursday.

Correctional facilities were highlighted as one of several workplaces leading to declared outbreaks during Thursday’s weekly physician town halls. Corrections came up a handful of times in the presentation.

Dr. Johnmark Opondo, who gave the epidemiological update, told his colleagues that correctional settings “have been really prominent in terms of care production numbers.”

He said outbreaks in Regina and Saskatoon correctional centres as well as at Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert, are considered “outbreaks of concern” and are all being driven by variants.

On Tuesday, the province announced that teachers and corrections staff would be added to the vaccine priority list, but only when vaccines become available to all residents aged 40 or older. That is expected to be the case by Wednesday.

Despite repeated calls to be included, corrections staff hadn’t been part of the earlier vaccine rollout targeted to frontline workers.

The addition of corrections staff to the priority rollout was highlighted in Thursday’s town hall. It was also mentioned, however, that inmates are not being prioritized, despite recommendations from doctors that they be added to the list. Inmates, physicians heard, are the only group of individuals living in a congregate setting that hasn’t been prioritized.

“Not vaccinating all congregate living facilities creates risk for increased acute (care) demand,” one of the slides presented to the doctors said.

According to the StarPhoenix, a leaked portion of a written exchange shows that experts have recommended the inclusion of inmates “numerous times.”

In response to a question during Thursday’s town hall meeting about the exclusion of provincial jail inmates from vaccine prioritization, Dr. Kevin Wasko — the physician executive for integrated rural health — said the clinical expert committee “did recommend the inclusion of both inmates and staff at correctional facilities early in the campaign. That was also endorsed by the oversight committee. The Ministry and SHA has advanced that position numerous times.”

Opondo then wrote that the Emergency Operations Centre “is continuing to advocate that this situation be reconsidered.”

Prisoner advocates have called for priority vaccinations as well. Their argument — prison is not a death sentence.

Elected government officials defended the current approach. Minister of Justice Gordon Wyant insisted Saskatchewan has “the best vaccine rollout program in Canada.”

“If we had more vaccines, we would be able to prioritize more groups of people. I ask, if she wants us to start prioritizing inmates, who are we going to take vaccines from?” Wyant responded.

Province-wide, the worry from the physicians’ perspective is that any further spread in the variants will further stress an already challenged health system. In Regina, decisions are being made to withhold important surgeries as there are no ICU beds for the patients to recover in post-operation.

More younger patients are seeing worse outcomes quicker, physicians were told, all due to the variants of concern.

It was likened by some to a second pandemic.

Provincial corrections were specifically highlighted by the presentation as a source of large outbreaks in Saskatchewan.

The Herald reported Friday that Sask. Pen, Saskatoon Correctional and the Prince Albert Youth Residence all have outbreaks of COVID-19 that began this month.

Regina Correctional is the site of a large outbreak that was previously reported.

Sask. Pen’s outbreak has come from new inmates arriving on-site, and not spread within the facility, Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) data says. There is also one staff case that is believed to have been acquired in the community.

The outbreak is that facility’s fourth. Sask. Pen is the only federal institution to have more than two outbreaks since the pandemic began.

— With StarPhoenix files from Thia James