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Health unit tracking down high-risk COVID-19 contacts released from jail

An outbreak of COVID-19 in the Thunder Bay District Jail was first declared in January and more than 90 individuals have tested positive.
Thunder Bay District Jail
The Thunder Bay District Jail. (File).

THUNDER BAY - The Thunder Bay District Health Unit is actively working to contact individuals recently released from the Thunder Bay District Jail who are considered at risk for being exposed to COVID-19.

“One of the challenges is that inmates can be released from jail for various reasons. That can happen anytime,” said Thunder Bay District Health Unit medical officer of health, Dr. Janet DeMille.

“You hope to have those planned when you know someone is going to be released, a lot of them are unplanned. That has been a challenge with both of the facilities. We are continuing to work with the jail to put in proper processes in place so that when people are released we are aware of them and we can contact them and go to the isolation shelter.”

An outbreak of COVID-19 was first declared at the Thunder Bay District Jail on Jan. 9 and a total of 92 positive cases have been confirmed. As of Thursday, there were 22 active inmate cases and 14 staff cases.

The city of Thunder Bay recently declared a state of emergency due to the ongoing outbreaks at the district jail and the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre. As part of the declaration, the city is asking for financial and staffing help to assist with isolation shelters for people who may have contracted COVID-19 and have no where to self-isolate.

DeMille did not have an exact number of how many individuals may have been released who are considered a high-risk contact. There are usually several releases from the district jail on a given day, many of which take place in the evening. 

According to DeMille, most inmates released from custody are going to the isolation shelters and there has not been any individuals released recently who have later tested positive for COVID-19, but she admitted it has happened.

“Inmates are being tested regularly in the facility and sometimes it does happen when someone is tested and they are released and then we find out that they are positive and then we have to track them down,” she said.

“The bigger issue is individuals who are considered high-risk contacts, so we know they have been exposed to high-risk contacts and they haven’t necessarily tested positive. Generally with high-risk contacts, we would want individuals to self-isolate for 14 days. We are trying to track down some of those individuals. Just because someone is a high-risk contact, doesn’t mean they contract COVID, but they are in a higher risk.”

Individuals who have been released and are considered a high-risk contact will be asked to go to an isolation shelter when contacted in order to allow for follow-up by the health unit. DeMille is currently finalizing an order to be delivered to those individuals.  

“We have a lot of partners, there are a lot of touch points to track them down, and we have a very skilled staff who are familiar with the population and the various places people might be in order to track them down,” DeMille said.

The president of OPSEU Local 737 at the Thunder Bay District Jail said all inmates are treated as potentially having COVID-19 given the outbreak. Test results are usually returned within 24 to 48 hours but staff would like to see rapid testing at the jail.

DeMille said the health unit is looking into bringing rapid testing to the district but it is not always accurate and tests analyzed here in the city are more reliable.

“There is certainly rapid testing modalities that are very helpful but they also are not as good as regular lab tests,” she said. “You have to be very cautious interpreting negative results and there are positive results that are false positives with the rapid tests.”

Doug Diaczuk

About the Author: Doug Diaczuk

Doug Diaczuk is a reporter and award-winning author from Thunder Bay. He has a master’s degree in English from Lakehead University
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