High-risk inmates in federally-run correctional institutions started receiving the COVID-19 vaccine on Friday in a move that is sparking controversy.
The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) announced about 600 older, medically-vulnerable offenders would receive the Moderna vaccine as part of a pilot project recommended by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.
"CSC will be holding five clinics to administer the vaccine to federal inmates," stated Isabelle Robitaille, regional manager, Communications at Correctional Service Canada.
Richard Dionne, OPSEU president of Local 396, said he, along with most employees at the Central North Correctional Centre (CNCC) in Penetanguishene, are disappointed with the decision.
"I have a number of members who are looking to be vaccinated. The government should be focusing on their workforce, not an inmate population," he said.
The Penetanguishene 'superjail' recently had an outbreak of COVID-19 in a unit that infected both inmates and staff members. The health unit has since declared the outbreak over.
"None of those individuals required hospitalization," Dionne said. "Generally, it's a healthy population, and the focus should be elsewhere."
CNCC is not on the list for the first phase of doses. Instead, they were provided to federal institutions in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, the Prairies, the West Coast, and the Regional Treatment Centre in Kingston, Ontario.
The CSC said that as more supply of the vaccine is provided, it would be offered to all federal inmates.
Premier Doug Ford has voiced his displeasure with the decision.
"Let's not give the most dangerous criminals in our country the vaccine before we give it to our long-term care patients."
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair responded to Ford's comments during a virtual interview Wednesday and said the government is following the National Advisory Committee's advice on immunization.
Barrie-Innisfil MP John Brassard said his phone has been ringing non-stop with questions from concerned residents.
He questioned the decision. "There is such a limited supply of vaccines in the province of Ontario. Why the government is deciding to go contrary to their initial plan of vaccinating those who are vulnerable in seniors' homes, long-term care, frontline, first responders."
The press secretary for the Office of the Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said in a statement Friday that provincial prisoners would have to wait in line behind long-term care residents and staff.
"The government's approach to identifying key populations to receive the vaccine first is informed by science and prioritizes population groups that are at greatest risks of COVID-19," Stephen Warner stated.