Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says he supports current federal efforts to vaccinate aging inmates in correctional facilities.
The Canadian government has set aside enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to immunize approximately 600 elderly inmates across the country.
“That seems to me humane and ethical that they should, like anybody in their 70s or 80s, be able to get access to the vaccine early on, given their particular vulnerability,” Kenney said Tuesday.
That position contradicts the stance of federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who tweeted that “Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front-line health worker.”
Kenney endorsed O’Toole during the party’s leadership race.
The leader provided a statement following the premier’s comments on the issue.
“Conservatives have been clear that we believe prison inmates should be vaccinated. The advice from the government’s own scientists [the National Advisory Committee on Immunization] clearly includes prison inmates in Stage 2, after front-line health workers and long-term care residents have been vaccinated,” O’Toole said in an email to CBC News.
Shortly after O’Toole’s initial weigh-in on social media, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said that “the most dangerous criminals in our country” were being put “in front of all the most vulnerable” for a vaccine.
Those designated doses are being used to vaccinate “older, medically vulnerable” inmates, according to Correctional Services Canada (CSC), about five per cent of the total population of federal penitentiaries.
More than 1,000 inmates across Canada have tested positive for COVID-19 and three have died since the beginning of the pandemic.
Kenney agrees with his colleagues that vaccinating seniors and health workers should remain the priority, saying that if vaccines are administered to otherwise healthy inmates, he’ll push back on Ottawa.
“I would go to the wall to oppose any effort to redirect vaccines from frontline workers, for the elderly, frail, to healthy younger prisoners. That would not be ethical.”
Alberta’s provincial vaccine plan outlines that immunizations will begin in February for people over 75, “no matter where they live.”
Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said last week that elderly people or those with underlying conditions living in a congregate setting are a priority for vaccines, including in correctional facilities.
“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,” he said.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) says in their vaccine rollout guidance that, just like long-term care facilities, a high number of virus outbreaks have occurred in correctional facilities.
“Furthermore, many residents in these settings have inequitable access to health care,” the plan reads.
NACI recommended the first phase of vaccine administration include long-term care staff and residents, people over 70, health-care workers and some adults in Indigenous communities.
Residents and staff of other congregate settings like prisons are recommended for phase two.
Alise Mills, a conservative strategist with Sussex Strategy Group, says the premier has bigger things to worry about right now than what his federal ally thinks — and that’s the long-term danger of a high-profile endorsement.
“It may be a case of Kenney saying ‘Alliances aren’t going to get me re-elected,'” she said, pointing to recent polls showing his faltering approval rating.
“I don’t think a luxury Kenney can afford right now is to stop and think what O’Toole might think.”
While she agrees with O’Toole’s position on inmate vaccination, she said the wording of his tweet was too harsh for such a delicate topic.
Prison justice advocates concerned about COVID-19
COVID-19 spread in Alberta prisons has concerned prison justice advocates in recent months, including a significant outbreak at the Calgary Remand Centre.
In December the Alberta Prison Justice Society called for the government and health authorities to act quickly to protect people in the province’s correctional centres from the virus.
There were more than 234 cases linked to that facility and the centre went into a total lockdown in the fall. Some inmates reported they were being triple bunked at times.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, has noted that while health protocols in correctional facilities have been effective, it’s difficult to stop transmission when people are living in such close quarters.
“When an introduction of the virus happens without identification, unfortunately it can spread extremely quickly and that’s very challenging,” she said last month.