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'Worst case scenario': One-third of Mission Institution inmates infected with COVID-19
VANCOUVER -- A prison in the Fraser Valley is seeing a large spike in cases after every inmate was tested for the coronavirus.
Mission Institution medium security now has 40 more inmates infected with the virus, bringing the total to 106. The prison population is 289.
Two of the inmates are hospitalized.
According to Correctional Service Canada's website from Thursday, 30 of those who tested positive for the virus have since recovered.
Another two prison guards have tested positive; there are now a total of 12 officers who are sick with the virus.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provided the latest numbers during an update Saturday, during which she also announced the largest single-day jump in cases since the pandemic started, with 95 new cases reported.
She said the spike is due to the fact that "extensive testing" was done at the facility in the last couple of days.
Henry said since the outbreak was confirmed at the start of the month, officials have been "playing catch-up" to stop the spread.
"It's a very difficult environment to effectively isolate people who are ill from others," she said.
For the last couple of weeks now, Mission Institution has had the largest outbreak in all federal prisons and it continues to have the highest number of cases.
The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers said members have been trying to work with various facilities to try to prevent outbreaks from happening in the first place.
"This is absolutely the worst-case scenario," said Jeff Wilkins, national president of the union. "We've been calling on every site to develop plans to avoid scenarios that we see today."
He said the union had been calling on Correctional Service Canada to provide personal protective equipment, such as masks, for its members.
While they were in discussions, some officers decided to take things into their own hands and brought their own masks to work with them, but were told not to put them on, Wilkins said.
He said the tune changed once Canada's chief public health officer declared that any sort of mask would provide some form of protection to others. Since that time, CSC has provided the requested PPE, he said.
But despite the large spike in cases, Wilkins said union members are still being put at risk.
"There's no quarantine unit -- there's infected people in every single living unit," Wilkins said. "It's gotten to the point where we're not even being told who has the virus and who doesn't, so it's not a good situation."
Advocates call on feds to release prisoners
Legal advocates have been sounding the alarm over possible outbreaks at institutions for weeks, and are asking the federal government to release prisoners who are deemed low-risk to society.
"We've seen the numbers just escalate and it's just spreading like wildfire inside Mission," said Jennifer Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services.
She believes action to slow the spread of the virus in prisons is a systemic problem, in part because prisoners receive health care from CSC.
She said change started to happen at Mission Institution when the local health authority stepped in.
"We would like to see health care provided in a way that isn't influenced by operational considerations," she said.
Henry conceded that it was a difficult process to coordinate between Fraser Health and Corrections Canada, adding the health authority has since been teaching and supporting the prison on infection control, such as wearing PPE and enhanced sanitation.
"It has been a challenging process; I'm not going to sugar-coat it. It's a very challenging thing to be able to support people who are in that type of communal setting and to try and prevent transmission of infection," she said.
CSC did not respond to an email Saturday but in a statement sent on Thursday, it said it's doing "everything possible" to prevent further spread at Mission Institution, including looking at ways to group sick inmates and enhancing hygiene practices.
"We have modified routines in institutions to respect physical distancing measures," CSC wrote in a statement. "We have been making every effort to give inmates time outside of their cells. Staffing levels can fluctuate and we have called out for volunteers to work at the site. We also need to make sure that time out of cells is done safely to prevent further spread."
The majority of prisons in the country are free of the coronavirus and advocates are hoping outbreak at Mission Institution will convince officials to release some prisoners.
"We need to depopulate where there hasn't been an outbreak and make sure this doesn’t happen at any more institutions," said Metcalf.