INMATES in Manitoba jails will start receiving COVID-19 vaccines next month.
Focused immunization teams are set to go into jails in April, a provincial spokesperson told the Free Press Thursday. The province’s vaccine task force prioritized those in congregate-living facilities, including jails, but there had been no word on when inmate vaccinations would begin, until now.
"The schedule and more defined timing will be announced as we get closer to that date," the provincial spokesperson wrote in an email.
Correctional officers 60 or older are already eligible to receive the vaccines, as are health-care workers and Indigenous spiritual leaders who work in jails.
In a March 9 memo to judges and lawyers, obtained by the Free Press, Manitoba Corrections stated no timeline had yet been established for when inmates would become eligible.
The memo stated that as of Monday, there were no current COVID-19 jail outbreaks and only seven active cases in total — three at the Winnipeg Remand Centre, two at Women’s Correctional Centre and two at Brandon Correctional Centre.
Over the past year, there have been outbreaks in five of Manitoba’s eight jails — including two different outbreaks at Headingley Correctional Centre — with 583 people infected. No one has died of COVID-19 in a provincial jail. Roughly 28 per cent of all Manitoba inmates have contracted the virus, based on Monday’s custody count of 1,654 adults and youth. There have been 464 inmates and 119 correctional staff infected since the pandemic began.
Prioritizing vaccinations for inmates is the responsible thing for the provincial government to do, said Sharon Perrault, acting executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba.
"I see it as a health issue," Perrault said. "I see it as lowering the risk for everyone," considering the number of inmates who will be released on bail, she added.
Tuesday’s memo stated 71 per cent of those currently jailed in provincial institutions are on remand, meaning they are waiting for their charges to be dealt with and haven’t been found guilty.
Perrault said Indigenous people, who are already at higher risk from COVID-19, are overrepresented in provincial jails. She emphasized the need for the public health risk to pre-empt any political concerns about vaccinating inmates ahead of others.
Meanwhile, the province hasn’t said whether homeless shelters will be included in the next phase of its congregate living vaccine rollout. A strategy for vaccinating homeless people in Manitoba is being developed with "extensive" consultation, and the plan is expected to take into account that many homeless people don’t have provincial health cards, a provincial spokesperson said.
Marion Willis, founder of Morberg House and St. Boniface Street Links, said she has been consulted and Morberg House has been put forward as a potential vaccination site for people who are homeless. In the meantime, she and her team have been registering more than 70 clients for health cards with Morberg House’s Provencher Boulevard address.
"There’s a real need to make sure that everybody in congregate-living facilities, not just those who work there, but also ones who live there, (are) vaccinated. The homeless population, I always believed, should have been very, very high on the priority list," Willis said.
Manitoba’s vaccine task force has said every Manitoban who wants a COVID-19 vaccine will have one by mid-June at the latest.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.