SGEU criticizes Sask.'s decision not to prioritize jails for COVID-19 vaccine
Phase 2 to prioritize 'clinically extremely vulnerable adults,' group homes and shelters
Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman is defending the province's decision not to prioritize correctional staff and inmates in the next phase of the COVID-19 immunization plan, despite a Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) report saying jails have been worse than nursing homes for the spread of COVID-19.
"I understand that the concerns that are coming out of corrections, but where we've seen the highest fatalities is, again, in that highest age," said Health Minister Paul Merriman.
The province unveiled Phase 2 of its vaccination plan Tuesday.
The province will also start vaccinating the general public, starting with people in their 60s and working down by 10-year increments.
It will also target "clinically extremely vulnerable adults," along with adults and staff in group homes for people with intellectual disabilities and shelters. But correctional facilities were left off the list.
The Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union (SGEU), which represents corrections workers, obtained an SHA report dated Jan. 14. The report recommends correctional centres be included in the next phase of vaccine rollout along with seniors, northern residents over 40, and emergency shelters and group home residents.
The report — a copy of which was sent to CBC News — notes that "populations whose 'place of residence' is remote, overcrowded and/or they are homeless or institutionalized would be key groups for early COVID immunizations."
In the periods leading up to the release of the SHA report, more COVID-19 cases were linked to correctional facilities than care homes, and the report suggests increasing preventative action in those congregate living settings.
Essential services workers who cannot work from home and have high social contact were also recommended for early immunization in the report.
Barry Nowoselsky, chair of SGEU's Public Service/Government Employment bargaining unit, said he is concerned and disappointed that those workers being left off the priority list.
"It's an irresponsible response from the [health] minister," said Nowoselsky, adding the union is concerned politicians are becoming too involved in public health decisions.
"For the government to step back and think that these facilities should not be our priority is absolutely ludicrous. These are essential workers. These men and women go to work every day, and they have no choice."
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Some of the workers are taking the announcement as slap in the face, he added.
As of Feb. 10, there have been 588 total known COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan correctional facilities, but only 21 are still active — 16 inmates, five staff — according to data from the provincial government.
Thirteen of the known active cases are in the Regina Correctional Centre, the data says.
COVID-19 outbreaks in jails have led to the Opposition NDP and inmates calling for the resignation of Christine Tell, Saskatchewan's minister of corrections, policing and public safety. A petition demanding Tell's resignation was also presented to the legislature last month.
There are no specific plans developed with regards to vaccinating inmates and correctional staff, but prioritizing age categories is one area the province will look into, Merriman said.
Phase 2 of Saskatchewan's COVID-19 vaccine plan could be underway some time from April to June, depending on the available vaccine supply, the province says.
With files from the Canadian Press