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COVID cases have doubled in Canadian prisons as uptick in vaccination across prisoners lull

Total of 16,111 prisoners contracted COVID-19 during this wave, 11 deaths
COVID-19 cases have doubled in prisons nationwide in recent months, according to University of Ottawa research. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

COVID-19 cases have doubled in prisons nationwide in recent months and advocates are worried that those behind bars are being forgotten, especially amid concerns of hesitancy and distrust in vaccines.

According to a study from the University of Ottawa, there were 22,428 cases reported within the span of just three months across both provincial and federal penitentiaries as the Omicron variant swept the country. At the end of November, 10,042 cases had been reported in total – up by 12,385 cases in February.

A total of 16,111 prisoners contracted COVID-19 during this four-month wave, and 11 were reported to have died related to the respiratory illness. Data shows that’s a 51 per cent increase from stats in November.

During the same time, 6,250 corrections staff reportedly contracted the disease and one person died.

“A number of imprisoned people have lived with mental health and drug-use issues – they’ve had poor experiences in healthcare and have faced discrimination in the community,” professor and researcher Justin Piche told Black Press Media in a phone interview Wednesday (March 2). “You go to prison and the healthcare and discrimination there is even worse – vaccine hesitancy is going to happen unless you have an educational rollout like the one seen with Correctional Services Canada.”

As health officials have been pushing Canadians to get their double vaccination and accompanying booster, data is showing that uptake in getting the jab behind bars has been poor across provincial prisons.

Meanwhile, federal penitentiaries have seen a better rise in vaccine rates, being the first to roll out a vaccination program.

CSC has administered a total of 31,145 vaccines and 87 per cent of inmates are double vaccinated in federal institutions across Canada. So far, 54 per cent have had their third dose.

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“What they did from the start was they engaged prisoners, families, and community organizations that they trust to provide information about the benefits and consequences of vaccines,” said Piche, emphasizing the importance of education and empathy when addressing concerns around vaccination.

CSC has been vaccinating inmates since January 2021 and all offenders – including new admissions to CSC – are being offered the vaccination, boosters included, said CSC spokesperson Esther Mailhot.

On the federal level, all staff and inmates are equipped with medical masks. Protocols are also in place that includes extensive testing, both rapid and PCR, use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and masks, medical isolation, and follow-ups, said Mailhot.

What do prison vaccination rates look like in B.C.?

According to a factsheet from the public safety ministry, individuals in custody are offered a first, second and booster dose of the COVID- 19 vaccine as early as reasonably possible following admission.

All public service employees were required to be fully vaccinated as of Nov. 22, 2021, which includes all B.C. Corrections staff working within a correctional centre or community corrections office.

All contractors, volunteers and other support and service providers were required to be fully vaccinated as of Dec. 13, 2021.

The province says that monitoring for COVID-19 is continuous for all individuals in custody and anyone who develops COVID-19 symptoms on a living unit is assessed by staff and medically isolated and tested for COVID-19.

To protect against possible transmission between correctional centres, BC Corrections also says it limits movement between centres.

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