THUNDER BAY — The union that represents staff at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre says an outbreak of COVID-19 at the facility on Highway 61 shows why it's imperative to step up testing.
The outbreak was declared Monday afternoon by the Thunder Bay District Health Unit and the Ministry of the Solicitor General.
Details were not provided in a TBDHU news release.
However, Shawn Bradshaw, president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 708, told TBNewswatch the outbreak currently involves three correctional officers but no inmates.
According to Bradshaw, an office worker also contracted the virus over 10 days ago.
"We've had a few staff test positive. Origin unknown. Potentially we've had one or two staff spread to each other, but most of them seem to be coming from community contacts."
Bradshaw said giving staff access to more testing would help mitigate the further spread of the virus.
"There has been some reluctance on the part of the ministry to do rapid tests...they just do not have the resources to provide them, which is concerning, because we are a communal living setting."
Despite the declaration of an outbreak, Bradshaw isn't optimistic that testing for staff will be stepped up anytime soon.
He said the virus is spreading "like crazy" through officers and inmates at numerous other facilities on Ontario.
"That's problematic to us because we are in outbreaks and we can't get our hands on rapid tests for the life of us, to make sure our inmates and staff stay safe."
Bradshaw said the union worries that the situation might worsen very quickly at any time, because of the speed with which the Omicron variant can spread.
District jail correctional officer are also asking for more COVID testing
One week after expressing confidence about the way the COVID-19 outbreak at the Thunder Bay District Jail was being handled, the head of the correctional officers' union no longer believes things are on the right track.
The outbreak was initially declared on January 6, when 24 inmates and staff were infected.
Bill Hayes says "I gave them too much credit when I said they were going to fall back on the stuff we did last year, and then they didn't really follow through with any of that."
According to Hayes, as of Monday the virus had spread to 86 inmates, up from 80 on Friday. However, the number of active cases involving staff had fallen from 34 to 14.
Still, he maintains that the speed with which the jail outbreak initially developed shows that stronger measures are needed to stop it from spreading further.
The jail had 125 inmates on Monday, meaning that 70 per cent of the inmate population is currently infected.
"We want staff to get tested regularly. We are an essential service that's working in an outbreak facility, and we want to know we are safe going to work, and not going to make this thing worse here [and] going home," Hayes said.
He said the government has denied the request for testing.
"We even asked for just rapid tests for staff, if you do have a sniffle that day, or before you go home to your family, but we've been denied that as well. Staff are getting pretty frustrated."
Hayes said it doesn't help that correctional officers are using up their sick time while isolating, including new recruits who don't have many sick days to begin with.
"We're expected to go in there every day with fingers crossed, hoping that the PPE works. We're still using surgical masks, no N95s, and then we go home hoping we're not spreading it to friends and family...It would be nice to have that peace of mind."
He added that "last year when this happened, they had us put up in hotels or isolation, and they were testing us every three days, then trying to really get a handle on it. This year we kind of feel forgotten about."
Hayes gave credit to the ministry for ensuring adequate testing of inmates, but said the jail population should be reduced to at least 110 in order to facilitate social distancing among inmates.
A ministry spokesperson confirmed it is coordinating the transfer of "a portion" of the inmate population to help maintain the safety of those who remain at the district jail.
The spokesperson said the jail has "an adequate supply of PPE for its staff."
In a statement, he also said the ministry is working closely with TBDHU "to support testing of inmates and staff" for contact tracing purposes and to help determine isolation and further testing requirements.
The statement outlined a series of operational changes place at provincial correctional facilities around Ontario that were implemented at the onset of the pandemic, and which are ongoing.