By Lachlan Boyle
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten Canada’s public health system, debate is increasing as to where our precious supplies of available vaccines should be best directed for optimal impact. Controversy arose recently when it was revealed that 1200 Moderna vaccines would be distributed to 600 federal inmates housed in five different federal prisons across the country, with elderly inmates and those with pre-existing health conditions being prioritized for the first round. To put this in context, this represents 5% of the federally incarcerated population in Canada. The first phase of the vaccine rollout began on January 8, 2021, with inmates at Warkworth Institution, by Peterborough, being some of the first prisoners in Canada’s federal corrections system to receive the shots.
The move sparked immediate condemnation from the federal opposition, with Conservative leader Erin O’Toole tweeting that “Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front-line health worker.” O’Toole’s sentiments are likely to be echoed by many Canadians wondering when it will be their turn to roll up their sleeves to receive the shot. The need for vaccination has never been so urgent, as we find ourselves in the midst of a second wave of the pandemic that may be even more deadly than the first.
And then there is the recent disappointing news on vaccine delays. As reported earlier this week, Canada will receive no shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine beginning next week and reduced shipments over the subsequent weeks as the pharmaceutical giant reconfigures its facility to ramp up production.
Given these circumstances, it is perhaps understandable that Canadians, weary of diligently following ever-restrictive public health guidelines for almost a year now, might see this pilot project as questionable, even unjust. After all, my elderly grandfather in a care home in Montreal hasn’t been able to visit, in person, with my grandmother since August. If neither of my grandparents can get vaccinated, why can an inmate, and one potentially convicted of a violent crime?
Supporters of the vaccine rollout point to the very high numbers of COVID-19 infection in Canada’s prison system, along with the vulnerable health status of the inmates chosen for vaccination. Indeed, COVID-19 transmission in prisons has clearly increased over the course of the pandemic. Of the 1,864 reported cases in Canada’s prison system from March to November of 2020, over half occurred in October and November of that year.
Since then, the rate of infection has only increased, with over 1,962 cases reported in federal prisons since December 1, 2020. The hardest-hit prison, Saskatchewan Penitentiary, in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, has experienced over 244 COVID cases, as of early this year. Moreover, while the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO) has argued that correctional officials themselves should be given greater priority for the in-demand shots, 80% of the infections in these facilities are amongst the inmate population. To mitigate the risk of infection, many facilities have taken to confining inmates in their cells up to 23.5 hours a day. Such a move raises important human right considerations that must be taken into perspective when evaluating the vaccine program.
Still, given the large numbers of COVID cases in certain federal institutions, such as the Joyceville Institution in Kingston, Ontario, it is curious why the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has chosen to administer the vaccines at prisons with no active COVID infections. In fact, one of those prisons, the Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia, has never experienced one COVID-19 infection since the pandemic began. When questioned on this point earlier this week by CTV News Ottawa, Isabelle Robitaille, the CSC’s senior communications advisor, replied that the government agency was relying on “guidance developed by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) to determine which inmates would be offered access to the vaccine.”
Nelson Mandela once said “that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” This may be true, but more work and hard decisions will need to be taken in the weeks to come to ensure that we are truly administering vaccines in the most effective way to protect our most vulnerable.