London

COVID-19 outbreak at EMDC spreads to inmates with 32 people now infected

An outbreak of COVID-19 at London's provincial jail has now spread to inmates and more staffers, raising doubts about how the spread of the virus can be stopped in the overcrowded institution.

The outbreak started when one staff member tested positive on Jan. 14

The Middlesex London Health Unit first declared an outbreak at EMDC on Jan. 18, after four employees tested positive for the coronavirus. As of Wednesday morning, 19 inmates and 13 staff members had tested positive for the illness. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

An outbreak of COVID-19 at London's provincial jail has spread from staff to inmates and is growing, raising doubts about how the spread of the virus can be stopped in the overcrowded institution.

As of Wednesday morning, 19 inmates and 13 staff members had tested positive for the virus at the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC). Two staff members tested positive today.  

"My clients are people who are relying on this institution to ensure that their best interests are taken care of, and given how those numbers have progressed over the last two weeks, I don't know that this institute is capable of doing that," said Chris Uwagboe, a criminal defence lawyer in London.

The Middlesex London Health Unit first declared an outbreak at EMDC on Jan. 18, after four employees tested positive for the coronavirus. At that time, no inmates had tested positive. 

The first case was reported on Jan. 14, followed by three more cases on Jan. 16. 

Containing the spread of a viral outbreak is difficult because the jail is over-crowded. It was originally built to house 150 inmates. As of Wednesday, there were 319 inmates in custody there, a spokesperson for the Solicitor General's office told CBC News. 

Worried parents, inmates

Family members, lawyers, and inmates all seem to be in the dark about how many people at the jail are infected with COVID-19, said Uwagboe and lawyer Kevin Egan, who represents in a class action suit on behalf of inmates at the jail. 

Criminal defense lawyer Chris Uwagboe says his clients are worried about the spread of COVID-19 within the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

"This is a vulnerable population in there, they are drug addicted, they have mental health and other health issues. They're basically living cheek by jowl, you don't have a choice who your roommate is, you're living in a cell with a stranger who may or may not have a communicable disease. 

"It's a dangerous situation at the best of times, but in a pandemic, it's basically a petri dish and it's ripe for this kind of spread." 

Inmates isolated for 2 weeks

All newly admitted inmates are tested for COVID-19 if they consent to the test, and all new inmates are separated from the general jail population for two weeks, a spokesperson for the Solicitor General said in a statement. Those who test positive are given personal protective equipment and are isolated from other inmates while receiving medical care. 

Masks are provided to inmates "if required," and all staff and visitors must wear masks. There are also temperature tests for staff and visitors, and increased cleaning measures, the ministry said. 

All inmates are also tested at the 10-day mark of their incarceration. More than 19,000 COVID-19 tests have been administered to inmates, according to the province. 

The outbreak will be difficult to contain because of the living conditions within the jail, said Medical Officer of Health Chris Mackie. 

"They have, at the best of times, an overburdened health care staff, so we're working to try to help them," he said. 

Because the first cases were reported among staff, it's likely they brought the infections into the facility, but an inmate bringing the virus in also can't be ruled out, he said. 

Bail less likely

At the beginning of the pandemic, defence and Crown attorneys made an effort to keep as many people as they could out of the jail, and to release those who could serve their sentences in the community. Those practices, Uwagboe said, have waned.

"My sense is that the resistance to incarceration that existed at the beginning of the pandemic, where they were trying to essentially get people out of there, there seems to have been some fatigue with respect to that," he said. 

Loved ones of inmates are also worried, said Egan. 

Kevin Egan is a London, Ont. lawyer with McKenzie-Lake who is currently embroiled in a $325 million class action lawsuit against the province on behalf of former inmates alleging mistreatment while being held at EMDC. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"I'm hearing from mothers who are wringing their hands, worried about their child, worried that their son or daughter that's in there will be potentially exposed to a deadly virus and there's very little they can do about it," he said. 

No vaccines yet

"I know that now people are being held in pre-trial custody far more than they were at the beginning of the pandemic. Pre-trial detention should not be the norm, and a lot of higher courts are saying that," Uwagboe said.  

Uwagobe said his clients have always worried about going to EMDC because of the violence and overcrowding there, but now are also worried about the deadly virus, and their chances of getting someone to vouch for them if they get bail. 

"We need to really consider what the bail plans are for people. Should we be sending an individual into an institution out of an abundance of caution, where there is a deadly pandemic disease raging through the numbers of that institution?"

Jail inmates won't get vaccinated until at least the second phase of the vaccine rollout, the Solicitor General's office said. That's when people living in congregate settings are set to get the vaccine. 

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