KINGSTON, ONT. -- An intense debate was sparked online after CTV News Ottawa revealed hundreds of federal inmates will be receiving COVID-19 vaccines this week while provinces struggle to deliver inoculations to other vulnerable residents.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO) said that the pilot project will begin Friday.

1,200 doses of the vaccine will be delivered to prisons across the country. In all, 600 inmates will be vaccinated, with each inmate getting the required two doses. It remains unclear which institutions in Canada will receive doses of the vaccine.

The story caught the attention of Opposition Leader Erin O'Toole, who said on Twitter Tuesday evening that "Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front-line health worker."

Sick and elderly prisoners will be prioritized, but prison officers and employees are not a part of the program.

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) says in a statement that they are following health guidelines for vaccinations.

“We have worked very closely with the Public Health Agency of Canada to respond to every aspect of the pandemic, including the provision of vaccines to inmates,” says the CSC.

Prisons have been a significant source of outbreaks across the country. In eastern Ontario, the Joyceville Institution in Kingston has an ongoing outbreak where 150 inmates have tested positive for the virus.

Liberal MP for Kingston and the Islands Mark Gerretsen replied to O'Toole's comment Tuesday night.

"Here’s a thought: how about we let health professionals decide who gets a vaccine and when," he wrote.

Gerretsen said Wednesday morning that he is not agreeing or disagreeing with the pilot project, but added "I prefer health care professionals deciding on the best way to slow down the spread, and eventually end, the pandemic. Not Erin O’Toole."

Justin Piché, associate professor in the criminology department at the University of Ottawa, says inmates are especially vulnerable.

“Even when they’re in lockdown, their cells are right beside each other,” he says. “So, if someone gets COVID-19 and coughs, and that gets in the air, it doesn’t have to travel very far for someone to get infected.”

Officers and prison employees will have to wait for the Province of Ontario’s second vaccination phase, which is expected to begin in March, but there is no firm date yet.

National president of the UCCO, Jeff Wilkins, says prison officers should be vaccinated too.

“People are very close together in there, our members are going to work in there every single day,” he says. “They need to be protected.”