The union representing correctional officers in Saskatchewan is calling upon the government to prioritize its members for vaccinations after 23 COVID-19 cases were reported at the Regina Provincial Correctional Centre (RPCC).
According to government data, there are 18 active COVID-19 cases among inmates and five positive cases among staff members at the correctional centre.
The SGEU Public Service/Government Employment (PS/GE) bargaining unit, who represents correctional officers, is also calling for the government to provide rapid tests to facilities.
Barry Nowoselsky, union representative for correctional officers at provincial government-run institutions, said all essential workers should be put on the priority list for COVID-19 vaccinations.
“What’s a real concern for us right now is that all staff in correctional centres and young offenders’ facilities aren’t made a priority for vaccinations,” Nowoselsky said.
Nowoselsky said correctional facilities are a hot spot for COVID-19 due to the nature of the environment, with confined spaces and individuals.
“All it takes is one case,” Nowoselsky said.
Nowoselsky explained in this most recent situation at RPCC, his understanding is that the outbreak started with a private contractor working in the kitchen.
Correctional workers have been declared essential and still have to go home to their families every day, Nowoselsky said.
“Those staff leaving that facility are a clear pathway back into the community, to their families and to the community,” he added.
Inmates should also be added to the vaccination priority lists along with correctional officers, Nowoselsky said, to ensure safety of everyone at the facilities.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization, known as NACI, guidelines recommend that residents and staff living in congregated settings such as correctional facilities be prioritized for vaccinations in Stage 2 of rollout.
The risk of infections of COVID-19 is high in congregate settings where physical distancing is challenging, NACI said.
“Other infection prevention and control measures are challenging and individuals may not be able to exercise sufficient personal actions to adequately protect themselves from infection. Furthermore, many residents in these settings have inequitable access to health care,” NACI stated.
In total, there have been 150 staff members and nearly 500 inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 across all provincial institutions as of April 7.
An additional 66 individuals who were released with an isolation plan have tested positive for COVID-19.
Currently there are 20 active cases among inmates, including two cases at Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert, Sask.
Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman told reporters on Thursday that most correctional officers are over the age of 30 and will be vaccinated in the next few weeks through the age-based system.
SGEU said waiting a few weeks just gives COVID-19 more time to spread.
“You could have a full-on outbreak; you could have hundreds of people infected,” Nowoselsky said.
Merriman said if the government changed the sequence of priority to include essential workers earlier, the system would slow down.
“We would have to look at it and discuss with (Dr. Saqib Shahab) on the potential of that. We have seen it in other provinces where they have targeted certain businesses and certain organizations and it’s created some challenges for them on the overall process,” Merriman said.
There are currently two provincially-run correctional centres with active COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan.
“Out of all the facilities, that’s a good number to have but it’s something that we got to keep our eye on,” Merriman said.
In an emailed statement to Global Regina, Saskatchewan NDP Justice Critic Nicole Sarauer said the government has failed to protect Saskatchewan residents.
“That includes hard-working correctional staff, their families and inmates. The government’s vaccine roll-out does not follow NACI guidelines that prioritize essential workers,” Sarauer said.
— with files from Allison Bamford
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