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Staff, youth put at risk of COVID-19 in custody centres

Toronto – OPSEU is greatly concerned that six youth custody centres run by the Ontario government have been denied the ability to isolate or test new admissions for COVID-19.

OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas says it’s hard to believe that the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services is resisting such sensible safety precautions this deep into the pandemic.

“We’re four months into this pandemic. Over 2,600 have died in Ontario alone. COVID-19 cases are on the rise among young people. What’s it going to take to get the ministry to take action to protect our youth and the workers who care for them? More fatalities?”

OPSEU represents the workers who watch youth serving sentences or on remand orders while awaiting trial. For weeks the union has been trying to get ministry officials to agree to testing.

“Our members have suggested several options to limit the possibility of COVID-19 entering one of our facilities, and we’ve offered to work with the employer to develop a protocol,” said Youth Justice Divisional Health and Safety Co-Chair Tom Gibson. “Unfortunately, the employer has failed to respond in any fashion for over a month.”

In contrast, the province’s adult correctional facilities, as well as many privately run transfer payment youth facilities, have been using full protections and quarantining new admissions for many weeks.

Gibson says youth facilities face the same difficulties as adult facilities with setting and maintaining physical distancing. He says there are alarming reports of spikes in the number of youth now testing positive for COVID-19.

“Preventing the disease at the point of admission is key. Our workers face the same dilemmas that led to many of the long-term care facility outbreaks. Pretending there’s no problem won’t make it go away.”

OPSEU First Vice-President/Treasurer Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida, who is a correctional officer, says Minister Todd Smith must intervene with his officials to ensure safety comes first.

“Mr. Smith, your youth justice workers are pleading with ministry managers to stop gambling with the lives of staff and vulnerable youth,” said Almeida. “It’s time to put test-and-isolate protocols in place at all youth facilities before it’s too late.”

For more information: Warren (Smokey) Thomas, 613-329-1931