The union that represents Winnipeg Transit drivers says a frightening scenario that unfolded on a bus last week highlights why bus operators should become a priority group to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
In a letter obtained by the Free Press, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 said one recent incident made a driver fear he'd get infected with COVID-19 on the job.
The letter states an elderly man who got on a bus was wearing a mask and coughing "like crazy." The union says the man told the driver he had tested positive for COVID-19 and needed to go to the Health Sciences Centre.
ATU confirmed it sent the letter to Winnipeg city council members to alert them about the incident. It urged them to lobby the province to make bus drivers eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines as soon as possible.
"We should be put on a vaccine priority list because we deal with this… on a regular basis," said James Van Gerwen, ATU 1505’s vice-president. "(That driver) had to go home that night worried that he was bringing (the virus) home to his entire family."
Van Gerwen said the rider kept coughing as other riders moved to the back of the bus to get away from him. The man was taken to HSC, he said.
The union representative said he’s concerned the risk of spreading COVID-19 on buses remains high, since dozens of riders can be in one vehicle at the same time.
ATU has said it supports ensuring all health-care workers are prioritized for vaccines but believes transit drivers should also be eligible soon after that takes place.
Currently, the province is offering vaccines to specific groups of workers in health facilities, labs, immunization clinics, long-term care facilities, home care, specialty patient transport (such as paramedics) and correctional facilities staff, some of whom must also meet minimum age criteria.
The province has also announced it will vaccinate all eligible Manitoba personal care home residents by early March, while other vaccines were earmarked for First Nations residents who are at high risk from COVID-19.
When asked about whether bus drivers could be added to that list, a provincial spokesperson answered that the vaccine supply is limited right now.
"There are many sectors in health care, emergency response and in other areas that are all doing important work – once the province has more certainty on vaccine supply, those groups will be added in due course," the spokesperson wrote in an email.
Mayor Brian Bowman’s office said the mayor has been trying to get more details about the province’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout since early December.
"Access to these details (is) being requested so the city can determine how, and when, provincial plans for vaccine prioritization will affect our essential services personnel… No such information has been provided by the province related to transit operators," spokesman Jeremy Davis wrote, in a prepared statement.
City of Winnipeg spokesman David Driedger said the city supports the province’s decision to prioritize vaccines for critical-care providers and those most at risk of getting COVID-19 but also hopes that list can be expanded soon.
"It’s our hope that the vaccine will be rolled out to front-line workers as soon as possible, including to our bus operators, once supply of the vaccine is more widely available," Driedger wrote in an email.
Driedger noted the city has repeatedly urged the public to avoid riding transit when they are sick.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.