Nova Scotia jails will get vaccines when supply is 'much greater': Dr. Strang

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HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's chief medical officer says inmates in provincial jails will be considered for immunization, alongside other vulnerable populations, when there's a larger supply of vaccine in the province.

Dr. Robert Strang said today that health workers and residents of long-term care homes will be vaccinated first in the weeks to come, adding that the next rollout will be targeted at older citizens.

However, prisoner advocacy group East Coast Prison Justice Society issued a statement this week saying conditions at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Halifax are inhumane, and that prisoners are spending most of their days in their cells.

The group says the province should prioritize vaccinating prisoners and corrections staff.

Strang responded by saying when "general immunization" begins in the spring, high priority will be given to African Nova Scotian and First Nations communities, along with people in homeless shelters and in prisons.

Strang, however, says planning for the vaccination rollout for all of those groups is still in the early stages.

"Part of our planning is actually looking at how do we make sure those vulnerable populations and settings get included in a timely manner as we're able to, once we get much greater vaccine supply," he told reporters.

Earlier this month, Correctional Service of Canada announced it was beginning to vaccinate older, medically vulnerable federal inmates against COVID-19, as recommended by the national advisory committee on immunization. The agency said vaccine will be administered to all federal inmates as supply becomes more available.

Strang's comments came as the province announced two new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total to 32 active reported cases.

In New Brunswick, cases continued to rise much faster than in the rest of Atlantic Canada. Health officials in that province reported 25 new infections today and said there were 256 active reported cases, with four people in hospital with the disease.

Strang said Nova Scotia was far from being safe from suffering a similar trend, and he urged citizens to truthfully report if they test positive and to tell officials who they've been in contact with.

The province has administered 7,600 doses of vaccine, with 2,200 front-line health workers having received two doses. Strang said while there are still supply uncertainties in the short term, "much greater supplies (of the vaccine) are expected in April and May."

At that point, Strang said, there will wider community distribution, including to prisons and to other vulnerable groups.

However, the East Coast Prison Justice Society said in its release that prisons have "above average rates of illness and disease, cramped living quarters where infection can spread easily," adding "public health priorities demand rapid access to vaccines in this context."

It also argued that the number of people in custody has returned to pre-pandemic levels after the province made initial efforts to reduce the prison population during the initial phase of the pandemic. The society called for more expedited bail hearings and bail reviews — including pre-trial release proceedings on weekends — and for more investments in community-based housing for inmates.

Department of Justice spokeswoman Heather Fairbairn said in an email Friday that the government has continued its program to release inmates early. She noted that between March 2020 and Jan. 14, 2021, 48 inmates who were within 10 to 30 days from completing their sentence were released.

In addition, she said 97 people serving intermittent sentences have been given temporary releases, adding that inmates within 30 days from completing their sentence will continue to be considered for early release.

She said while some visits and programming have been reduced because of public health restrictions, prisoners are still able to communicate with their loved ones and with legal counsel online.

People serving intermittent sentences were all released at the start of the pandemic, Fairbairn said, adding that the correctional service will "review any new intermittent sentence admissions for release based on the individual’s level of risk."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2021.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press