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The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 mRNA vaccine at a clinic in Toronto on Dec. 15, 2020.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Federal inmates who are elderly or have pre-existing health conditions will soon receive a COVID-19 vaccine, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said in a virtual news conference Wednesday.

Up to 600 prisoners have been identified to receive the vaccine, he said, representing just 5 per cent of the federal inmate population. Doses will be distributed among a number of institutions, and the rollout will begin Friday.

“There are people in our federal institutions who are elderly, have pre-existing health conditions and other conditions that make them far more vulnerable and that’s why we’ve prioritized them.”

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Several federal institutions have been affected by the pandemic, Mr. Blair added, including three in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario that are experiencing “fairly significant outbreaks.”

When will Canadians get COVID-19 vaccines? The federal and provincial rollout plans so far

The decision has sparked criticism from Conservative politicians, who point out that the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommended residents and staff of federal prisons be vaccinated in the second stage of the rollout.

Mr. Blair, however, said Ottawa is following the committee’s advice. His words were echoed by Correctional Service of Canada Commissioner Anne Kelly.

NACI recommends residents and staff of congregate living settings that provide care for seniors, health care workers and adults in some Indigenous communities receive the vaccine first. The examples listed of those living and working in congregate settings include long-term care, assisted living, retirement homes and chronic care hospitals.

In Stage 2, NACI recommends the vaccine be distributed to residents and staff of all other congregate settings, and lists correctional facilities, homeless shelters and quarters for migrant workers as examples.

On Tuesday evening, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole tweeted, “Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front-line health worker.”

Conservative public safety critic Shannon Stubbs added to his comment in a statement on Wednesday, calling the decision “outrageous.”

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he didn’t believe it when he first heard federal inmates were being prioritized, and urged Ottawa to reverse course.

“How do you square this? How do you put them ahead of long-term care patients? How do you put them in front of all the most vulnerable? And we’re scraping every vaccine we can get.”

The language of “resentment and fear” has no place in the discussion, Mr. Blair said.

Senator Kim Pate, a former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said health authorities should not be contradicted – especially not for political reasons or to inflame public opinion.

People are particularly vulnerable in congregate settings, she said, and approximately one in four prisoners are elderly and a significant number suffer from chronic health issues.

The public should be concerned about the inmate population, she added, noting that prisoners re-enter the community and are in contact with staff.

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“The reality is they are at heightened risk of both contracting COVID, but also having more dire consequences.”

Jeff Wilkins, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said his organization has received few details of the plan and questioned when his members would be vaccinated.

“Our members are working in institutions right now that have been declared as pandemic sites, and they are not being afforded the protection of a vaccine. They should be a priority.”

Mr. Blair said the immunization advisory committee advised to prioritize those who work in federal institutions in subsequent phases of the vaccine rollout and Ottawa will follow that advice.

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