Manitoba's justice minister says the government is doing everything it can to prevent further spread of COVID-19, after an outbreak was declared Tuesday at the Headingley Correctional Centre.

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Manitoba's justice minister says the government is doing everything it can to prevent further spread of COVID-19, after an outbreak was declared Tuesday at the Headingley Correctional Centre.

"We have discontinued transfers and any new admissions to Headingley," Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said during question period.

Seven inmates and two staff have tested positive at the provincial facility west of Winnipeg, he said in response to questions by NDP justice critic Nahanni Fontaine.

Fontaine said she's worried about the virus spreading among provincial correctional facilities and during transfers of inmates.

"We need to know who is being infected, as well as the nature of transmission," said Fontaine. "What steps is the government taking to reduce the spread for all persons in correctional facilities?"

Cullen said his department has discontinued visitation at the Headingley jail, which is getting additional, medical-grade personal protective equipment "for staff and when inmates request it, it is provided to them as well."

Public health officials said in a COVID-19 bulletin Tuesday measures to mitigate risk — including separating contacts and cases from the rest of the population — have been taken at the jail. Cullen said they've been working closely with public health since the start of the pandemic.

"We've changed the way we manage inmates, process inmates and increased PPE to keep staff and inmates safe," he said.

Fontaine told reporters after question period it's important COVID-19 infection prevention measures are closely followed.

"We know that Manitobans who are currently housed at our correctional facilities are some of the most at-risk and vulnerable, and have many underlying health issues which then have the potential for rapid transmission in very confined spaces," the NDP MLA said.

"Not only within the facilities themselves, but even when you look at the transportation vans (officials) use. Those are very confined spaces which are not conducive to ensuring that there's no spread in the individuals that are transported."

Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, said the positive tests are concerning.

"The (union) members are going in, knowing that COVID is there, not knowing if they’ll be coming home safe," she said. "Our hearts go out to the corrections officers and to the inmates."

Further complicating the situation, as officers test positive or have to isolate, the workload will be shifted to colleagues, in a place that is now having to take extra measures because of the COVID-19 outbreak, Gawronsky said.

The union is also concerned, while under outbreak protocols and directed to discontinue inmate transfers, it appears the province may have been violated its policy the very day it was announced.

"They had some transfers from Headingley to Milner Ridge," Gawronsky said. "Four went from Headingley to Milner and that caused some consternation… I would hope they don’t have COVID... Corrections officers need to know what they are dealing with."

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said while cases of COVID-19 have also been identified at Milner Ridge and the Winnipeg Remand Centre, outbreaks have not yet been declared at those facilities due to the "nature of the cases and the amount of contacts."

"If we looked at say in Headingley, the index case there we knew had many, many contacts, so as we saw the cases developing then we knew we should declare an outbreak," Roussin said Tuesday.

About 150 inmates at Headingley are self-isolating, officials said.

— with files from Kevin Rollason and Danielle Da Silva

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.