Fewer than half of Ottawa inmates have 1 dose of COVID-19 vaccine

Ottawa’s top doctor says she’s concerned with the vaccination rate of inmates at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre as the jail continues to deal with another large COVID-19 outbreak.

Outbreak at Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre now longer than 1 month

In late spring 2021, about 35 per cent of inmates at the Ottawa jail had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That population has changed, but still fewer than half of the current inmates have their first dose. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Ottawa's top doctor says she's concerned with the vaccination rate of inmates at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre as the jail continues to deal with another large COVID-19 outbreak.

As of Tuesday's daily report, nearly 90 inmates and staff at the Innes Road jail tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak first declared by Ottawa Public Health (OPH) on Dec. 21.

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, said throughout the pandemic OPH has been working with the jail and Ontario's solicitor general to manage outbreaks and facilitate the immunization of inmates.

The jail also faced a large outbreak during the third wave of the pandemic, but that wasn't as large as the current one.

Vaccine uptake and confidence in public health has increased since that time, Etches says, but still remains an issue. About 43 per cent of the 482 inmates in provincial custody have at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Ministry of the Solicitor General.

"We still remain concerned that there is a relatively low level of uptake within the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre due in part to the transient nature of the population," Etches said during a virtual meeting of Ottawa's board of health on Monday.

Effort to increase vaccination

In a written statement, ministry spokesperson Andrew Morrison said COVID-19 vaccines are available to all eligible inmates on an ongoing basis and the ministry works with community groups and local public health units to promote vaccination. 

"Facility health care staff continue to work with inmates one on one in each unit to discuss the benefits of vaccination, and address concerns, ahead of any opportunities to receive the vaccine either at the facility or in the community after release," Morrison said. 

In an email, an OPH spokesperson said the health authority has provided the jail with "pamphlets, posters and educational videos to reduce vaccine hesitancy and increase vaccine confidence," but the jail decides how to share that information.

Justin Piché, an associate professor in the department of criminology at the University of Ottawa, said those efforts fall short.

Advocate Justin Piché, also an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, says not enough was done to provide information to inmates at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre about COVID-19 vaccines. (Submitted by Justin Piché)

Piché, who also helps run a jail hotline for inmates, said vaccine hesitancy within the jail population stems from people's past experiences with the health care offered while incarcerated.

He says inmates would benefit from peer-to-peer conversations with people from organizations outside of the correctional system.

"People have concerns and you need to to try and have these fulsome discussions and take the time that's needed, and that doesn't appear to be happening and there's consequences for it," Piché said.

"I mean, just look at this outbreak."

Piché wrote to OPH last March with suggestions on how to best provide information to inmates — including having members of the jail hotline speak one-on-one with them, but said he didn't hear a response.

COVID spreads beyond jail

He said the outbreak is a problem for the whole community because staff come in and out of the jail daily.

"They're going back to the communities, shopping in the same stores that we do right. So like, nothing that happens behind bars stays there," he said.

The outbreak causes a facility-wide lockdown where Piché says people are spending up to 23 and a half hours in their cells in the name of "public safety."

Etches said OPH is providing outbreak consultation to the jail that relates to cohorting to "minimize close contacts so people don't need to isolate to balance mental health and safety."