THUNDER BAY — Five correctional officers at the Thunder Bay District Jail have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while others wait for the results of their tests to come back from the lab.
Bill Hayes, president of OPSEU local 737, says the number of inmates who've tested positive currently stands at 20.
The outbreak began after one inmate tested positive on Jan. 5.
"We were expecting this. We were hoping for the best but expecting the worst," Hayes said. "Staff need to be very vigilant here, with their personal protective equipment especially."
In an interview Wednesday, he said the infections are impacting the ability to keep staffing at proper levels.
"We're starting to feel it now. We have the five that are off and isolating for two weeks, and a number of others waiting for results. We'll find out probably in the next couple of days if we have more off for two weeks or if they're able to come back to work."
There are currently 135 inmates in the jail, a number that Hayes said jeopardizes the effort to control the spread of the virus.
"We need to be sitting at around 100 inmates, just to have the space to take care of this without the fear of it spreading everywhere. If it doesn't happen soon, we're gonna be looking at the whole place going up, probably."
Updated data about the COVID-19 outbreak at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre was not immediately available Wednesday morning from the Ministry of Correctional Services.
Two new cases were reported there on Tuesday.
Hayes said the situation at the correctional centre is worrisome.
"They're in a very vulnerable setting, because it's all dormitory. They have to get on that as soon as possible. They're in the midst of tracing and testing so we don't know the extent of it just yet."
Shawn Bradshaw, the head of the OPSEU local representing 185 correctional officers at the Highway 61 facility, said he's concerned about what the test results will show.
Bradshaw said mass testing of the inmates has been completed, and he expects the officers will be tested in the next couple of days.
The correctional centre has taken steps to ensure physical distancing among its population.
According to Bradshaw, new living spaces have been created, and additional TV sets have been brought in to minimize congregating.
Staff, he said, wear full PPE including gloves, gowns, goggles and masks whenever they are in close proximity to inmates.
Hayes believes the Ontario government should prioritize staff and inmates at all correctional facilities for the COVID-19 vaccination as soon as possible.
He said inmates who tested positive for the virus are being released into the community.
"As soon as they're done with the court process, they're out the back door," Hayes said, adding that this has happened in a few cases over the last few days.
"Luckily, public health is working closely with health care staff here on their discharge plan, and the social workers are doing a great job." he said, but noted that "the onus is on the inmate to self-isolate."
Hayes said it's important now to focus more on providing social supports for released inmates.
NOTE: This story has been updated to include additional information regarding the situation at the correctional centre.