Manitoba justice and health officials are defending the way provincial jails have handled the COVID-19 pandemic after 45 people have tested positive for the virus.
“I think it’s an opportunity for Manitoba Justice to set the record straight,” Justice Minister Cliff Cullen told reporters Monday at a media briefing, where the government said it tests every new inmate for the virus and immediately isolates anybody who shows symptoms.
He called accusations the province isn’t doing enough, from the opposition NDP and senior union leadership, to be “misleading, inflammatory, and quite frankly, very unfortunate.”
A total of 34 inmates have contracted COVID-19 as of Monday morning. All positive cases have been at the Headingley Correctional Centre, except for one case at the Agassiz Youth Centre.
Six staff at Headingley have tested positive for COVID-19, while two employees at Milner Ridge and one each at the Brandon Correctional Centre, the Winnipeg Remand Centre and the Manitoba Youth Centre have tested positive.
Across the province, around 470 inmates are in isolation.
Mandatory isolation for new inmates
Dr. Jazz Atwal, a provincial medical officer of health, said isolating every inmate for a 14-day quarantine at the Remand Centre is among the most vital mechanisms Manitoba has employed to keep the virus out of its correctional centres.
Meanwhile, staff are required to self-check for symptoms at home. They have their temperature checked every time they enter.
“I think from a public health perspective … zero risk to attain [COVID-19,] that is relatively impossible, so we want to mitigate the risk as much as possible,” Atwal said.
He said that an asymptomatic correctional officer brought COVID-19 into the Headingley jail. The officer developed symptoms while off work, but was previously in close contact with an inmate who then subsequently transmitted the virus to other individuals.
Since then, there’s been widespread testing of close contacts.
“We’re finding not-unexpected positives, Atwell said.
“Those contacts who became cases, they have their contacts, so what we’re seeing here is not an unexpected number of cases.”
NDP justice critic Nahanni Fontaine said the government should have announced new initiatives to support inmates and staff at correctional facilities.
She’s spoken with a family of a Headingley inmate who said their family member became sick but was only isolated after a positive test, not the development of symptoms, as the province has said.
“They were sent back into general [population], which is a dormitory kind of situation where they are able to congregate and talk and come into contact with other folks who are incarcerated,” Fontaine said.
The government said in response to the accusation Monday that inmates with cold or flu symptoms are immediately moved to a symptomatic unit for isolation and testing.
She’s heard that isolated inmates aren’t retested for the virus after completing the time period where they’re required to be set apart from other people, she added.
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