TORONTO/OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada will start inoculating its federal prison inmates against COVID-19 starting Friday, protecting a vulnerable population that many jurisdictions have struggled to keep safe during the pandemic, a government statement said on Wednesday.
Correctional Service Canada said in the statement it would start with 600 elderly and medically vulnerable inmates, followed by more when additional vaccine becomes available.
Three inmates have died due to COVID-19 as of Jan. 5 and there are 144 active cases, out of about 12,500 federal inmates in the country, according to government data.
Inmates are vulnerable not only because they live in high-risk settings in what are often older and poorly ventilated buildings but also because they often have comorbidities that worsen prognosis should they fall ill, public health experts say.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the government was following the advice of an advisory committee which said people congregated together in places such as prisons were at higher risk.
But the move came under fire from the federal opposition Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole, who posted on Twitter that, “Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front line health worker.”
The president of the union representing Canadian correctional officers said he supported prioritizing inmates but wanted vaccines now for his members, as well. The Corrections Canada statement said prison staff would get inoculated through their province or territory and that the agency is working closely with these governments to ensure health workers in prisons are vaccinated in the first phase.
Many jurisdictions have struggled to keep people behind bars safe during the pandemic. According to an October report from the National Academies Press, COVID-19 infection rates among the incarcerated population were nearly five times higher than that of the general U.S. population.
Vaccination is “a really important initiative to address the higher risk of transmission in prisons and the fact that there are multiple active outbreaks in prisons,” Dr. Farah Mawani, a social and psychiatric epidemiologist with Unity Health Toronto.
(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Sam Holmes)