Saskatoon jail inmate says limited COVID-19 testing may have hidden true number of cases

An inmate at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre says the COVID-19 testing system at the jail may have given a false picture of the number of cases.

Inmate says system of only testing people who appear sick did not reveal asymptomatic carriers

There was an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre in late November. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

Brayden Reimer is still surprised he never contracted COVID-19.

Reimer is an inmate at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre. He's been there since early July and had his first COVID-19 test when an outbreak hit the jail at the end of November.

"I had tested negative and my roommate tested positive, and I was stuck in a room with someone who was positive for five or six days," he said in an interview.

"So from the time that we got our test results back handed to us, it was on Monday morning I believe ... nothing was done until the following Thursday."

Widespread testing was done at the Saskatoon jail in late November, after health officials declared an outbreak.

As of Nov. 21, only one inmate and one staff member at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19. By month's end, that total had climbed to more than 100 offenders and staff, eventually peaking at 142. Measures to reduce the spread  included ongoing testing of offenders and staff.

Reimer said he is concerned that the approach of only testing people showing symptoms disguised the real number of cases at the jail.

"Ninety per cent of the people didn't even show symptoms at all," he said of the full-scale testing after the outbreak was declared.

Groups such as the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union and the Opposition NDP have asked why there is no widespread, voluntary testing in jail for the virus.

They say that there could be dozens of active cases where a person is asymptomatic, but actively spreading the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 in the close quarters of the crowded jails or unknowingly carrying it back into the community.

Corrections and Public Safety confirms that voluntary testing for COVID-19 is not available in provincial correctional centres.

A spokesperson says offering testing is a public health decision.

"All decisions around testing are made based on guidance and direction of public health authorities," said Noel Busse in an email.

"We are carefully monitoring the number of cases in other correctional centres, and will continue to follow the guidance of public health authorities on the scope of testing within our facilities."

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Dan Zakreski is a reporter for CBC Saskatoon.