Biomedical prof says Sask. not mass testing in jails 'seems negligent' and invites COVID-19 outbreaks

·3 min read

A assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan is warning that the province's policy on COVID-19 testing in jails is inviting a massive outbreak.

The Saskatoon jail is the only centre where mass testing of staff and inmates has taken place.

The province says it will only test people in other correctional centres who show COVID-19 symptoms.

"Mass testing events were conducted at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre in late November as part of the overall outbreak management response after symptomatic staff and offenders in the general population tested positive for COVID-19," Ministry of Corrections and Policing spokesperson Noel Busse wrote in an email.

Kyle Anderson/Facebook
Kyle Anderson/Facebook

The mass testing in Saskatoon was implemented after a handful of cases were found. Testing pushed the number of known cases to 142.

There are presently 12 known active cases in the Prince Albert jail.

"Offenders and staff who tested positive at the Prince Albert Correctional Centre had less contacts in the facility, and the scope of the infection is not on the same scale as Saskatoon. As a result, it was not deemed necessary to conduct mass testing," Busse wrote.

Kyle Anderson, a biomedical assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said this reasoning does not make sense.

"You already know that there are cases in that jail," he said in an interview.

"It seems negligent at that point to say we don't think we need to test everybody, because you're not going to be able to get things contained. And this is how we're going to get to a massive outbreak."

The concern raised by groups such as the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, Legal Aid Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Government Employees Union is that the government approach — test only people showing symptoms — misses inmates and staff who may be asymptomatic.

Anderson said this is a legitimate concern.

"If we're only looking for symptomatic individuals we aren't going to know there's a crisis until we're actually in the crisis," he said.

"If you're not keeping track of potentially an asymptomatic carrier who might be spreading, that could spread from one person to multiples to multiples of those multiples before you have a chance to detect."

Anderson said the same principle applies to any closed population, whether it's a jail, long-term care home or Hutterite colony.

One of the features of the outbreak at the Saskatoon jail is that number of positive cases spiked dramatically once the mass testing began. Anderson said the government seems to be heading down the same path in other jails.

"It sounds like something went really badly in Saskatoon because we had a few symptomatic people and weren't mass testing," he said.

"Now we think it will be different in P.A. if we have a few symptomatic people and no mass testing. And it just seems like they're just setting themselves up for the exact same situation as what happened in Saskatoon."

As of Dec. 18, there are 77 known active cases at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, 12 at the Prince Albert Correctional Centre, six at the Regina Correctional Centre, three at the Pine Grove Correctional Centre and two at the Kilburn Hall Youth Centre.