Ten more inmates at a B.C. prison have tested positive for COVID-19, officials said Sunday, as the outbreak at the federal facility continues to worsen.
Thirty-five inmates and five correctional officers are now infected with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus at the medium-security Mission Institution, which remains the site of the largest outbreak among an inmate population in Canada.
The prison has been locked down as health and corrections health officials work to contain the outbreak.
An additional inmate from the prison who has tested positive has been transferred to the Pacific Regional Treatment Centre in Abbotsford for medical care.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Saturday that five of the people infected at Mission Institution are in hospital.
She added there was “quite a lot of transmission” at the facility before the outbreak was recognized, which allowed the virus to spread within the prison.
Sav Bains, the Pacific regional director of health services for Correctional Services Canada, said officials are working around the clock to contain the spread, including isolating cases and enhancing its cleaning measures.
Visits have been suspended and all staff are screening when entering and leaving the facility.
Bains said it’s still not clear what prompted the outbreak or what the initial source was.
“We’re doing exhaustive tracing exercises to identify how the virus entered Mission Institution, and we’re looking at close contacts of those who have tested positive as well,” he said.
Bains said personal protective equipment has been secured for both inmates and staff, and that officials have had “great success” in obtaining that equipment from government supply chains.
As of Wednesday, the CSC has directed corrections officers and all other staff across the federal prison network to wear masks if they’re forced to be within two metres of other people, including inmates and other staff and contractors.
The Union of Canadian Corrections Officers has said it is working to ensure those masks are provided as much as possible, though advised that members can bring their own masks if they have them.
Bains said wellness checks are conducted daily on inmates and staff, regardless of whether they’re showing symptoms.
Over 100 inmates and corrections officers across Canada have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the latest numbers provided by the CSC and the union.
Lawyers and inmate advocates argue prisons are prime areas for viral outbreaks to occur due to close quarters and the number of shared facilities, including eating areas, gyms and showers.
They say non-violent inmates should be released into vacant hotels or shelters to allow prisons to maintain physical distancing measures.
Bains said the CSC is in discussions with the Parole Board of Canada, local health authorities and community leaders to identify inmates who could qualify for temporary release and “what that would look like.”
“Public safety is paramount,” he said. “We have a compassionate lens to this due the pandemic, and we will make the appropriate decisions once that framework is put into place.”
CSC officials are in contact with families of those who are infected, Bains said, and that all inmates are able to keep in touch with loved ones while in-person visits are suspended and the lockdown remains in place.
He also assured that inmates are still being treated with care despite isolation measures that are being enforced to limit the outbreak.
“We respect the rights of individuals that are currently incarcerated, by ensuring there are still showering routines, ensuring they have access to phones to call their families, ensuring three meals a day are provided to them,” he said.
“We hope to have as much time out of cells as possible, but right now with the pandemic situation our focus is on making sure everyone is safe, not just inmates but staff as well.”