Stony Mountain inmates could receive 1st dose of COVID-19 vaccine as early as Friday
Part of plan to inoculate roughly 600 inmates across Canada who are 'older, medically vulnerable'
Some inmates at Stony Mountain Institution, a federal prison in Manitoba, could receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as early as Friday.
The Correctional Service of Canada announced it will start vaccinating "older, medically vulnerable" federal inmates, based on advice from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, which lists residents and staff of all shared living settings — including correctional facilities — as a priority group once further vaccine supply is available.
Federal inmates will receive doses of the Moderna vaccine, and the doses will be administered by health workers at federal correctional institutions, the CSC said in a news release issued Thursday. Distribution could start as soon as Friday.
"COVID-19 itself doesn't really care whether somebody is an inmate, or a correctional staff member, or family members of correctional staff members. It doesn't discriminate," said Dr. Anita Ho, associate professor in bioethics and health services research at the University of British Columbia and the University of California in San Francisco.
"In correctional facilities, just like many other congregate sites, people are in very tight quarters. But in prison, there are also concerns because people who are in prison … can't protect themselves from each other in many ways," she said.
Inmates may not be able to physically distance or sanitize the way people in society may be able to. Some facilities, such as Stony Mountain, are also old and do not have good ventilation. That all results in higher risks of infection and transmission, Ho said.
There will be enough vaccine distributed to immunize about 600 federal inmates total this round, said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair. CBC News has contacted the CSC about how many doses will be sent to Stony Mountain Institution.
The announcement to vaccinate inmates has received flak from various politicians, however, including federal Opposition Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who question why inmates will receive the vaccine before other essential workers and care home residents.
The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, which represents more than 7,400 correctional officers in 49 federal correctional institutions, also has concerns.
"We are disappointed that CSC did not consult with the union. They essentially made the plan and conveyed the plan," said Jeff Wilkins, the union's national president, in a news release.
"Our members are working in institutions right now that have been declared as pandemic sites, and they are not afforded the protection of a vaccine. They should be a priority."
The union is also wondering if the federal government will distribute doses to sites with worse COVID-19 outbreaks, Wilkins said.
Stony Mountain Institution has had more inmates test positive for COVID-19 than any other federal correctional facility in the country.
As of Jan. 6, there were 16 known active cases among Stony Mountain inmates, according to the CSC website. But since the pandemic began, 361 inmates total have contracted the illness and one inmate has died.
A total of 47 staff members at Stony Mountain have also tested positive for COVID-19; 27 of those cases are active as of Jan. 7, said a CSC spokesperson.
As of Tuesday, any Manitoba health-care worker who comes in direct contact with patients and works in provincial or federal correctional facilities is eligible to book an immunization appointment.
The announcement to vaccinate federal inmates is sound public health policy, says Ho, and anyone criticizing the plan does not fully understand that.
"If we say, especially in public health situations, that we won't give medical attention to inmates, that's a double jeopardy," said Ho. "The health care should have no bearing on whether the person is in prison or not — that's not part of the sentence.
"We're not rewarding people based on their being in prison or not. This is a public health crisis that, if we don't start with people who are at the highest risk of getting sick, who would then also have the chance of transmitting to others, then we will not be able to control this pandemic. "
Ho noted that critics may also be assuming that all inmates will accept the vaccine, which may not be the case. She cited Indigenous inmates in particular, who may not trust the government due to a history of mistreatment.
With files from Kathleen Harris