Correctional officers, inmates at Port-Cartier prison test positive for COVID-19

The maximum-security penitentiary in Port-Cartier, on Quebec's North Shore, is under lockdown, after two inmates and nine correctional officers tested positive for COVID-19.

Public health officials fear 'domino effect' in nearby Sept-Îles

Nine correctional officers at the Port-Cartier Institution on Quebec's North Shore are off work and in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

The federal penitentiary in Port-Cartier, on Quebec's North Shore, is under lockdown, after two inmates and nine correctional officers tested positive for COVID-19.

The maximum-security institution is located on Quebec's North Shore, 575 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.

The two inmates, who have been medically isolated from the general population, are the first two confirmed cases in any federal corrections institution in the country, Correctional Service Canada (CSC) said in a written statement.

On March 26, test results showed an employee at the Port-Cartier Institution was also positive for the novel coronavirus. By Monday, a total of nine workers at Port-Cartier were home with mild symptoms of COVID-19.

Two other cases have also confirmed at the Joliette Institution for women, 75 kilometres north of Montreal —bringing the total number of cases in federal prisons in Quebec to 11.

CSC said it is taking "immediate action when an employee is symptomatic, including thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting the space and ensuring the employee self-isolates at home until cleared to return to work."

Several other measures are now in place to try to contain the virus, including enhanced screening for anyone entering the institution. All visits with inmates have been suspended.

The union representing federal corrections officers in Quebec, UCCO-SACC-CSN, declined CBC's request for an interview, saying in a written statement that while both institutions remain locked down, "public health officials continue contact tracing, and provide recommendations to the CSC on mitigating further spread of the virus."

'Domino effect,' nearby mayors fear

As of Monday, there were 27 cases of COVID-19 across the North Shore region.

The prison is one of the biggest employers in Port Cartier, along with steel and pulp and paper plants.

Mayor Alain Thibault said the 11 cases connected to the nearby prison is worrisome.

"These correctional officers are people who live in our community, so they have been in contact with many other people," said Thibault.

Port-Cartier Mayor Alain Thibault said the federal prison is one of the town's main employers, and having nine correctional service workers infected means many more may have come in contact with the virus. (Marc-Antoine Mageau/Radio-Canada)

Many of the correctional officers are also volunteers firefighters, Thibault said, and have been in contact with some of their colleagues. Two other firefighters are self-isolating as a precaution.

Nonetheless, Thibault said, he now has a better idea of the number of cases he may be dealing with in his municipality, since his region's public health officials aren't providing local breakdowns of the numbers.

While some regions, like Montreal, are providing breakdowns of the number of cases in each borough, other regional public health authorities are only giving overall numbers, to protect the privacy of people living in smaller towns.

I have the impression we're playing a big chess game with a bandage over my eyes.- Sept-Îles Mayor Réjean Porlier

But Thibault and other mayors on the North Shore have been asking for more data, to be better equipped to put in place emergency measures if needed.

"We're facing a situation that is new, that is big and difficult to manage, so having the right communication channels will be extremely important," said Thibault.

A spokesperson for the CISSS-Côte-Nord said for the moment, the public health agency "is not planning to give out the data by city."

"Prevention measures, like handwashing and social distancing, should be respected by the entire population," Pascal Paradis wrote in an email statement to CBC.

The CISSS Côte-Nord confirmed, however, there are no cases on the Lower North Shore and Caniapiscau, which includes Fermont, Schefferville, Matimekush-Lac John and Kawawachikamach.

Thibault said the cases in Port-Cartier may have a "domino effect" in the neighbouring city of Sept-Îles as well, where some correctional officers live.

Mayor Réjean Porlier said people who live in Sept-Îles drive up and down Highway 138 to work in Port-Cartier, and vice-versa.

He said he wasn't "surprised" to see dozens of cases being confirmed in the region. But he'd also like to know in real time where those cases are coming from.

"If there are small pockets of contagion, like at the penitentiary, it's not normal that elected officials are learning about it on the news," Porlier said.

"I have the impression we're playing a big chess game with a bandage over my eyes."

No cases in Quebec jails 

The union for provincial correctional officers said there are no reported cases among its members.

One inmate at the Sherbrooke jail has tested positive, however.

The president of the SAPSCQ-CSN, Mathieu Lavoie, said anyone now admitted to a provincial jail is isolated from the rest of the population.

Calling COVID-19 "an invisible enemy," Lavoie said his members "have always worked behind closed doors."

But he said as in any other workplace, people are anxious.

Workers also have to respect the guidelines of physical distancing set by the government. But Thibault said that is easier said than done, working in such tight spaces.

"We're trying out best but the office is only so big, and we are afraid we could run out of protective gear," said Lavoie.

With files from Radio-Canada

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?