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The number of COVID-19 cases at the Thunder Bay District Jail has more than doubled

The correctional officers' union says the jail needs to be less crowded in order to reduce further spread.
Thunder Bay District Jail Winter

THUNDER BAY — Since Jan. 6, the number of COVID-19 cases at the Thunder Bay District Jail has grown from 24 to 52.

Bill Hayes, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union local that represents correctional officers at the jail, says the figure includes 22 inmates and approximately 30 staff.

"We expected it to get worse before it gets better, just based on the last time we went through this," Hayes said in an interview Monday.

Last winter, a COVID-19 outbreak at the jail lasted over two months and helped to fuel a rapid rise in cases in the community.

On Thursday, the Thunder Bay District Health Unit declared the first outbreak at the jail since that time.

Hayes said lessons from the experience last year are being put to use in the current outbreak.

"They are being handled differently right now. We're resorting to the things we learned, and controlling it in how to reduce the numbers. We were concerned with the rising rates in the community. It was just a matter of time before it would get through the doors here."

However, Hayes said he's concerned that the jail has too many inmates to reduce the risk of exposure from close contact.

As of Monday the jail population was 136.

He hopes transfers to other institutions will get that number down to at least 110.

"When the general population fills up, we don't have anywhere to put the intake inmates, and a lot of time they have to be cohorted with other inmates that came in on different dates."

Hayes explained that the intake inmates are new arrivals who need to be observed for 14 days to ensure they have no COVID symptoms, before they are moved in with the general population.

He said that becomes more difficult when the inmate population is as high as it is now.

"We're kind of in a holding pattern right now, until we get an idea of how bad this is going to be. But they are doing testing and they are working to clear a bunch of inmates for transfer."

Hayes said he hopes that might start to happen by the end of the week, depending on the outcome of COVID testing.

The Ministry of the Solicitor-General says its COVID-19 protocols for provincial correctional facilities were developed in alignment with the Ministry of Health.

That protocol requires any inmate who tests positive to be placed on "droplet and contact precautions" and to be isolated from the rest of the jail population while receiving appropriate medical care.

Ministry clinical staff also have access to inmate vaccination records.

A spokesperson did not respond directly to an inquiry from TBNewswatch about plans for inmate transfers out of the Thunder Bay District Jail.

He said operational changes implemented through the system since the onset of the pandemic include:
  • screening and testing all newly-admitted inmates, with their consent
  • housing all new inmates in a separate area for 14 days
  • providing masks if required
  • providing PPE for all staff
  • requiring all staff to wear a mask at all times, and eye protection as necessary
  • requiring visitors to wear masks at all times
  • requiring temperature checks for staff and visitors

The spokesperson also noted that increased cleaning measures were implemented at the start of the pandemic.

Across Ontario, the recent large surge in COVID-19 cases has been driven by the Omicron virus, which spreads much more easily than earlier variants. 

Gary Rinne

About the Author: Gary Rinne

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Gary started part-time at Tbnewswatch in 2016 after retiring from the CBC
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