Starting Friday, hundreds of federal inmates will begin to receive COVID-19 vaccines as part of a pilot project, according to the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO). It’s a move that’s sparked debate among federal and provincial politicians about who is being prioritized in the early stages of the mass vaccination campaign.

As part of this initial vaccine rollout, 1,200 doses of COVID-19 vaccines will be delivered to prisons across the country. In all, 600 inmates will receive vaccinations, with each inmate getting the required two doses over a few weeks. The Moderna vaccine will be used for this immunization effort.

In total, across the country, more than 165,000 health care workers, front line staff and seniors have begun receiving shots, with 1.2 million more doses expected to land in this country and be administered to these key groups this month. 

Elderly prisoners and those with pre-existing conditions are being given first access to these shots, but prison officers and employees are not a part of the program, according to the union. National president of the UCCO Jeff Wilkins is pushing to see prison officers vaccinated sooner.

“People are very close together in there, our members are going to work in there every single day,” he said. “They need to be protected.”

Facing questions about the plan during a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair defended the federal government’s approach and derided politicians for “the language of resentment and fear” which he said “really has no place in this discussion.”

Blair emphasized that this initial program is using a “small number” of vaccines for those most acutely at risk and the general prison population will have to “wait their turn” like all other Canadians.

“We have a duty of care for those who are in our custody to ensure that they are treated fairly and that they are kept safe,” Blair said.

Blair said he understands there are concerns about this vaccination effort leaving out correctional officers given the risks they face, but said they too will be among the earliest to receive immunizations. He did not offer a specific timeline.

“I think that's also very much in the interest of those workers who are in those institutions to take the steps necessary to protect the most vulnerable people in those institutions,” Blair said.

Through the pilot, doses will be sent to five prisons: one federal institution Atlantic Canada, one in Quebec, one in Ontario, one in the Prairies, and one on the West Coast to start. The union says it does not know which facilities in particular will be receiving the vaccines.

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) said in a statement that they are following health guidelines for vaccinations.

“We have worked very closely with the Public Health Agency of Canada to respond to every aspect of the pandemic, including the provision of vaccines to inmates,” said the CSC.

Commissioner Anne Kelly said it was “very welcome news,” that the most vulnerable inmates will have access to these shots.

The agency has confirmed the vaccinations will start Jan. 8 as the “first phase” of their immunization campaign, but offered no new details on which facilities will be involved. 

The vaccines will be administered by CSC health staff, who are being told they have to be vaccinated by the provincial government. 

“CSC has health-care workers who provide close, direct care to inmates diagnosed with COVID-19 and who work in congregate living settings. We are working closely with provinces to ensure vaccines are prioritized for these workers in the first phase,” said CSE.  

The news has prompted the outrage of Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who tweeted Tuesday night that: "Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front-line health worker." 

Liberal MPs were quick to respond, advocating for the mass immunization campaign to be informed by health professionals. 

“There is no prison ICU... prisoners use regular hospital beds,” tweeted Liberal MP Chris Bittle. “Maybe we should listen to public health experts rather than the leader of the opposition,” he said.

In a subsequent statement on Wednesday, Conservative public safety critic Shannon Stubbs and Quebec MP Richard Martel doubled down on their opposition to this plan, which they characterized as “Liberals giving COVID-19 vaccines to criminals” before other at-risk groups, and said that prison outbreaks have been “isolated.” Ontario Premier Doug Ford also joined in on the criticism of this plan, saying Blair has “dropped the ball” and this move should be corrected.

Responding to the criticism, Blair was unapologetic and said that provinces share responsibility in ensuring the current supplies of vaccines go where they should.

Blair said he understands there are concerns but this vaccination effort is following the advice of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), which is providing the federal government with advice and guidance around prioritization of vaccines.

NACI has suggested that residents and staff of congregate living settings that provide care for seniors should be among the first phase of vaccinations, and that residents and staff of correctional facilities should be prioritized in the second phase of immunizations.   

“The risk of infection with SARS-CoV-2 is high in congregate settings where physical distancing and other infection prevention and control measures are challenging and individuals may not be able to exercise sufficient personal actions to adequately protect themselves from infection. Furthermore, many residents in these settings have inequitable access to health care,” reads NACI’s recommendations in part. 

Blair said that the inmates being vaccinated through this program meet the criteria of being eligible in the first phase.

“There are some individuals within our federal institutions who are elderly, who have existing health conditions, and as a consequence are at a much, much more significant risk and very similar to those elderly individuals living in long-term health care facilities,” Blair said. 

While steps have been taken in an effort to limit the spread of the highly contagious virus through the closed quarters of federal corrections facilities, prisons across the country have experienced outbreaks, with seven institutions currently dealing with active COVID-19 cases.

In eastern Ontario for example, the Joyceville Institution in Kingston has an ongoing outbreak with 67 active cases, of the total 151 inmates that have tested positive for the virus at that facility over the course of the pandemic.

University of Ottawa Associate Criminology Professor Justin Piche said given the threat of COVID-19 transmission inside prisons, inmates and staff should be among those receiving early access to vaccines.

“These congregate settings need to be dealt with sooner rather than later,” Piche said. “Especially for folks who are who are older or who have health issues.” 

To date, there have been a total of 1,146 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Canada’s federal inmate population which averages around 14,000 people, and there have been three deaths.

With files from CTV News’ Kimberley Johnson, Ted Raymond and Jeremiah Rodriguez