Stopping jail outbreaks of COVID-19 needs to be a priority, Etches says

Ottawa's medical officer of health says preventing another COVID-19 outbreak inside Ontario jails needs to be a priority due to the large population of inmates, as well as limits on how to isolate those who become sick.

Ottawa jail outbreak ended Tuesday after dozens of inmates, some staff tested positive

The Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre reported a COVID-19 outbreak that ran from May 22 to June 21, 2021. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Ottawa's medical officer of health says preventing another COVID-19 outbreak inside Ontario jails needs to be a priority due to the large population of inmates, as well as limits on how to isolate those who become sick.

Dr. Vera Etches sent a letter Monday to Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones where she referenced challenges while managing a COVID-19 outbreak once a jail is exposed.

Etches sent the letter the same day a month-long outbreak ended at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.

Ottawa Public Health reported 36 inmates and five staff members at the jail tested positive for the virus, which forced a lockdown, advocates say.

"The impact [of the outbreak] goes far beyond just those who contract COVID," Ottawa lawyer Erin Moores told the city's board of health meeting Monday night.

"The entire institution was on lockdown for weeks. When we say lockdown, we mean torturous conditions and we're not using that word lightly."

Moores detailed how callers to the jail hotline said they were confined to their cells for more than 23 hours a day with no access to the yard, fresh air programs, visits or in some instances, reading materials.

More can be done to prevent COVID-19 at Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, OPH says

3 months ago
Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, has sent the province’s solicitor general a list of recommendations for preventing outbreaks at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. At least five staff members and 36 inmates tested positive in the latest outbreak at the jail. 1:30

Etches acknowledged those problems facing inmates during a lockdown and wants to find an alternative way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside jails.

The same issues have come up inside long-term care homes during outbreaks.

"When someone is in confinement, alone, for 23½ hours, that can't be good for health," she said

"This is a hard downside that we've seen in this pandemic and where we need to really learn about how to engage people and find other ways to make that more humane."

Rapid testing needed in jails, Etches says

In the letter, Etches made three specific recommendations. One of those encouraged the province to implement rapid testing as soon as possible for inmates before transferring them between facilities.

"We appreciate that the province is presently rolling this out as a pilot, however we believe this should be considered a best practice," the letter states.

The letter also suggests each jail across the province should have "sufficient capacity" for inmates to allow them to quarantine for a 14-day period when being admitted to the jail or when an outbreak occurs.

Finally, Etches recommends provincial facilities establish best practices to determine how many inmates and staff are vaccinated weekly.

Justin Piché, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, spoke to CBC earlier this month about the lack of trust and information he believes has been behind the low vaccine uptake among inmates at the Ottawa jail.

He also questioned why vaccinations were offered to inmates weeks after jail staff.

Etches said Monday the jail was not among the list of high-risk institutions with vaccine priority when there was limited supply. She also said the solicitor general directed staff to be immunized before inmates.

Mobile users: View the document
(Text KB)
CBC is not responsible for 3rd party content


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?