Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay health unit takes 'aggressive' action to control inmate discharges. But some ask why not sooner?

On January 27, a North Star Air plane left Thunder Bay to complete what it thought would be a standard passenger flight north to several First Nations, before returning to its headquarters in the northwestern Ontario city.

Medical officer of health issued a class order to people released from district jail on Tuesday

The Thunder Bay District Health Unit issued a class order Tuesday directing all people released from the district jail in the city to go directly to the isolation shelter upon release. One day later, it declared an outbreak within the homeless population. (Gord Ellis/CBC)

On January 27, a North Star Air plane left Thunder Bay to complete what it thought would be a standard passenger flight north to several First Nations, before returning to its headquarters in the northwestern Ontario city.

The flight made stops in Eabametoong and Neskantaga, where several people boarded. The plane then landed in Webequie.

While in Webequie, flight staff learned a passenger that had been released earlier from a correctional centre tested positive for COVID-19.

At that point, new passengers were refused boarding as per North Star's COVID policy, and the plane returned to Thunder Bay.

There, travellers and staff were held on the airport tarmac for almost an hour until health officials arranged for them to be tested and isolated after they were possibly exposed unknowingly to the virus.

The incident resulted in Webequie going into lockdown, the possible exposure of additional passengers, and North Star Air taking the aircraft out of service.

It is also an example of the confusion and challenges that some say have shrouded the process of safely releasing people from Thunder Bay's District Jail and Correctional Centre, both of which are entering their fifth week of active COVID-19 outbreak.

Health unit issues class order to people released from jail

Since the first case was reported at the correctional centre on January 5, more than 180 people linked to the two correctional facilities have tested positive for the virus.

And as the outbreaks grew, the district's medical officer of health said the health unit established a process where they would be informed when an inmate was released, so they could follow up with them.

But in an interview with CBC, Dr. Janet DeMille said the process "did result in us not necessarily being able to find people really well."

It also meant that some people were released without anywhere to go, leading some to access the shelter system and raising concerns about further community spread among vulnerable populations in the city or beyond.

Those fears were evidently justified.

Thunder Bay District Health Unit Medical Officer of Health Janet DeMille says all of the "pieces" had to fall together before she could issue the class order. (Logan Turner / CBC)

On Wednesday, the health unit declared an outbreak among people experiencing homelessness and precarious housing, saying there has recently been "a small but significant increase in cases of COVID-19 within this population."

Now, the health unit is taking "a more aggressive level of action," according to Dr. DeMille.

She issued a class order on February 9 to anyone released from the district jail to use transportation provided by jail staff and go immediately to the city's isolation shelter.

There, people will be assessed by a public health nurse to determine their risk of having and spreading COVID-19, and accommodations and supports will be made available for that person to isolate for the required amount of time. They are also ordered to follow the directions of the public health nurse and of the isolation shelter.

Some are asking why this wasn't done sooner?

The process is similar to what was being done by the health unit earlier in the corrections outbreaks. But now with the class order, if people do not follow these instructions, they could be fined up to $5,000 per day under Ontario's Health Protection and Promotion Act.

But Justin Piché, an assistant professor of criminology at University of Ottawa and a founding member of the Prison Pandemic Partnership, says there should've been housing supports and other measures in place for people released from jail so they could safely isolate a long time ago.

"We're 11 months into this thing, and we're having a public health office issuing these kinds of orders now? These kind of planning meetings are happening now?"

Piché said that advocates and experts across the province have been telling the Solicitor General — the ministry responsible for the corrections system — that people cannot be simply "let out onto the streets without any housing support or other supports required to keep them safe when they don't have access to it."

He added, "fining people pushed to the margins, however, is problematic. We should be focused on meeting peoples' basic needs not extending the punishment."

Justin Piché, associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, has been studying the effect of the pandemic on prisons and people that are incarcerated. (Submitted by Justin Piché)

Bill Hayes, the union president representing staff at the district jail, says they've been left out of key meetings about how to address the outbreak.

"Maybe if the Ministry of the Solicitor General would have adopted this earlier, we wouldn't have got to this point.

"The union predicted this becoming a problem in early January … these people are being released and we need to prepare the public for this," he added. "But here we are at the beginning of February and class orders are being issued." 

Pieces had to come together before order could be issued: DeMille

In previous interviews with the CBC's radio show Superior Morning, Dr. DeMille said the health unit has been working with the correctional facilities, making recommendations on how to cohort inmates, adjust how meals are handled, and to improve infection prevention and control measures.

"Things did seem overall to take a turn for the worse the last week of January and first week of February," said Dr. DeMille. "And it was that result that really prompted a more aggressive level of action."

But before the health unit could legally require inmates to report to the isolation shelter, the medical officer of health said "the pieces of the puzzle" had to fall in place.

Those pieces included expanding the number of rooms at the isolation shelter, the transport of people upon their release, and the staffing levels at the shelter. Dr. DeMille added the city declaring a state of emergency, which it did on February 2, helped those resources come together.

Cynthia Olsen previously confirmed there were 40 rooms available at the isolation shelter — which also serves as an overflow shelter when city shelters are at capacity. She said the number of rooms has since expanded, but did not clarify by how much.

The Thunder Bay District Social Services Administrative Board, which funds the isolation shelter, did not respond to a CBC request to clarify how many rooms were now available.

With files from Kris Ketonen, and with files from Superior Morning.

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story suggested that Justin Piché is in favour of fining people released from the jail if they do not follow the class order. He is in fact opposed to this part of the health order. This change has been reflected in the story.
    Feb 11, 2021 10:24 AM ET

now