Ottawa's medical officer of health says preventing another COVID-19 outbreak inside Ontario jails needs to be a priority due to the large population of inmates, as well as limits on how to isolate those who become sick.
Dr. Vera Etches sent a letter Monday to Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones where she referenced challenges while managing a COVID-19 outbreak once a jail is exposed.
Etches sent the letter the same day a month-long outbreak ended at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre.
Ottawa Public Health reported 36 inmates and five staff members at the jail tested positive for the virus, which forced a lockdown, advocates say.
"The impact [of the outbreak] goes far beyond just those who contract COVID," Ottawa lawyer Erin Moores told the city's board of health meeting Monday night.
"The entire institution was on lockdown for weeks. When we say lockdown, we mean torturous conditions and we're not using that word lightly."
Moores detailed how callers to the jail hotline said they were confined to their cells for more than 23 hours a day with no access to the yard, fresh air programs, visits or in some instances, reading materials.
Etches acknowledged those problems facing inmates during a lockdown and wants to find an alternative way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside jails.
The same issues have come up inside long-term care homes during outbreaks.
"When someone is in confinement, alone, for 23½ hours, that can't be good for health," she said
"This is a hard downside that we've seen in this pandemic and where we need to really learn about how to engage people and find other ways to make that more humane."
Rapid testing needed in jails, Etches says
In the letter, Etches made three specific recommendations. One of those encouraged the province to implement rapid testing as soon as possible for inmates before transferring them between facilities.
"We appreciate that the province is presently rolling this out as a pilot, however we believe this should be considered a best practice," the letter states.
The letter also suggests each jail across the province should have "sufficient capacity" for inmates to allow them to quarantine for a 14-day period when being admitted to the jail or when an outbreak occurs.
Finally, Etches recommends provincial facilities establish best practices to determine how many inmates and staff are vaccinated weekly.
Justin Piché, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, spoke to CBC earlier this month about the lack of trust and information he believes has been behind the low vaccine uptake among inmates at the Ottawa jail.
He also questioned why vaccinations were offered to inmates weeks after jail staff.
Etches said Monday the jail was not among the list of high-risk institutions with vaccine priority when there was limited supply. She also said the solicitor general directed staff to be immunized before inmates.