What began early last week as a coronavirus outbreak involving four staff members at London’s troubled provincial jail has ballooned to include at least 32 people, with more cases anticipated as testing continues at the facility.
As of Wednesday, at least 19 inmates and 13 staff members at the Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in south London had tested positive for COVID-19 since the outbreak was declared on Jan. 18, health officials said.
“As we continue to test, we do continue to see more cases, (and) we expect to continue to do so,” said Dr. Chris Mackie, the region’s medical officer of health, on Wednesday.
“They have, at the best of times, an overburdened health-care staff, (and we are) working our best to support the health-care staff and the the guard staff at the facility.”
Health unit officials said early last week that they were notified of an initial case among the jail’s staff on Jan. 14. Three additional cases were confirmed on Jan. 16, and the outbreak was declared two days later.
No inmate cases were active at the time, but since then, the virus has spread quickly among the inmate population, provincial data shows. One active inmate case was reported at the facility on Jan. 19, a figure that rose by four by Jan. 20, and 19 on Jan. 24.
The inmate tally has not risen or fallen since, however two additional staff cases were reported on Wednesday by the health unit.
Up until the outbreak, only two inmate cases had been previously reported at the overcrowded jail, which houses nearly 320 people.
“The Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre is another example of a facility with challenging infrastructure,” Mackie said.
“You’ve got close quarters, you’ve got limited space, and you’ve got, in normal times, a lot of contact between the inmates in that facility.”
Voluntary inmate testing has been ongoing at EMDC, with those found positive placed under droplet precautions and isolated from the rest of the inmate population, according to a spokesperson with the Ministry of the Solicitor General.
It’s unclear how many inmates and staff at the jail have been tested for the virus so far, and whether the virus was passed on to inmates by infected staff or by another inmate who brought it in. It’s also unclear whether a variant of the coronavirus may be to blame for its quick spread.
On Monday, it was announced that the health unit had requested that the province’s lab sequence positive samples from several rapid-spreading local outbreaks, including the one at EMDC, to see whether variants may be linked. Results have yet to come back, Mackie said Wednesday.
Although the condition of those infected has not been made public, the facility has not recently transported any inmates to the hospital, said the ministry spokesperson.
Mackie noted that while staff and inmates at the jail tend to be younger and therefore less at-risk compared to older age groups, he said there tends to be a relatively high level of other unrelated diseases among inmates that could put them at risk of COVID-19 complications.
“Fortunately, we haven’t seen any fatalities there. Hopefully we won’t, because of the protective age factor. But certainly it is a place where it will be difficult to get a hold of that outbreak.”
Under changes implemented during the pandemic, new inmates at provincial jails are housed in a separate area from the general population for two weeks and are tested with consent.
Masks are also provided to inmates, “if required,” the ministry’s website states. Staff and visitors to the jail are mandated to wear a mask or face covering and are screened before entering the facility.
Asked whether inmates should be required to wear masks all the time, Mackie replied the question of masking in such environments “should be about places where distancing is impossible.”
“The same as we have for employment environments where you’re unable to keep two metres, masking should be the rule. And that’s obviously got a lot of implications in a corrections environment, but if masks are deployed in that way, that can help stop the spread.”
It remains an open question as to when inmates and staff at EMDC and other provincial jails can expect to be vaccinated for the coronavirus.
The province is in phase one of its three phase vaccination rollout plan, which focuses on long-term care, retirement homes, Indigenous populations, and high-risk health care providers.
But while the second phase of the rollout brings some additional flexibility in terms of who is eligible, health officials are still weeks away from knowing who is in the second phase, Mackie said.
“We have a broader definition of eligibility that includes people in congregate settings, high-risk environments, but we don’t have things, like exactly which facilities, nailed down yet,” he said.
“One thing that we’re hoping, as we see this virus spread through some of those congregate living environments, is that there is a bit of flexibility around deploying the vaccine where there is an outbreak.”