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The Thunder Bay District Health Unit confirmed to The Globe and Mail that immunizations of all willing prisoners at the city’s two jails are currently under way.DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

Ontario is rolling out COVID-19 vaccines for prisoners in Thunder Bay this week as the community deals with a surge in cases linked to the city’s jails.

The Thunder Bay District Health Unit confirmed to The Globe and Mail that immunizations of all willing prisoners at the city’s two jails are currently under way and that jail staff would soon have the same opportunity.

The strategy amounts to a dismissal of views put forth by the likes of federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, who tweeted in January: “Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front-line health worker.”

But it does line up with advice from public-health experts, who have long noted that imprisoned people are more susceptible to contracting and transmitting a range of infectious diseases – and that those vulnerabilities largely remain once they’ve returned to communities.

“There’s an enormously compelling argument for why we should vaccinate this population,” said Ruth Elwood Martin, prison physician and clinical professor with the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health. “They should be a top priority. When a person comes into a correctional centre, there’s no such thing as physical distancing.”

In recent weeks, the Thunder Bay region has become a national hotspot for COVID-19 cases. On Wednesday, the district’s Medical Officer of Health, Janet DeMille, extended in-person school closings until March 29 to deal with an active case rate that is the highest in the province – roughly double that of the nearest jurisdiction.

The region had largely avoided high case counts until early January, when the Thunder Bay District Jail and Thunder Bay Correctional Centre declared outbreaks. Between the two facilities, 67 staff and at least 100 prisoners have tested positive for the virus. By early February, the major source of new infections had shifted to the city’s homeless population. Now, the virus is “essentially everywhere,” Dr. DeMille said in a video address on Monday.

According to provincial figures, the two jails have released a total of 29 people with active COVID-19 cases into the community since the beginning of the year.

“Unfortunately, what we know is that a number of these individuals are discharged into homelessness,” Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro told The Globe. “And of course that’s a concern not only for them, but for all of us.”

Last week, Mr. Mauro wrote a letter to Ontario’s minister responsible for corrections seeking assurances that the province is working to limit possible COVID-19 spread from correctional facilities. All provincial jails offer masks to prisoners and place new arrivals in 14-day isolation units, but have little discretion over when inmates get released.

“When the courts tell us to let them go, we have to let them go. That’s what it boils down to,” said Shawn Bradshaw, a correctional officer and president of the union representing most staff at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre. “There’s this misconception that we should have just kept them in jail because they have COVID, and that’s just not possible.”

Provincial jails only handle inmates awaiting bail or trial, and those serving sentences of less than two years. The average stay is 43 days for remanded inmates and 59 days for sentenced inmates, according to a 2019 Auditor-General’s report.

Health issues inside the jails inevitably become health issues in the community. Adding to the urgency, research shows prisoner populations have elevated rates of alcohol and tobacco use, respiratory illness, sexually transmitted disease and immune-system issues related to stress, said Susan Bondy, associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“When you have these other co-morbidities and you get COVID, you are more likely to get very sick, to be hospitalized, and, depending on other factors, to die,” she said.

Despite the risks, few jurisdictions in the country have begun full vaccinations in jails and prisons. In January, the federal correctional service initiated a limited immunization program for prisoners 70 and older and those with chronic health conditions. News of that plan prompted Mr. O’Toole’s objections over Twitter.

“There’s going to be a definite public benefit to vaccinating the prison-involved population,” Dr. Bondy said. “You don’t have to be ultraliberal to make a case for it. It’s a simple matter of infectious-disease mechanics.”

With a report from Willow Fiddler

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