At the height of rush hour, passengers packed into public transit buses brush shoulders and sway with the road’s bumps and turns, often close enough to smell that day’s lunch on each other’s breath.
Could it be close enough to catch a potentially deadly virus?
That’s the question major transportation providers grappled with in the wake of the SARS crisis in 2003, vowing to be prepared the next time a new pathogen threatened to spread on busy, enclosed buses and trains.
They say they are prepared.
But the Toronto transit union wants to see more action to protect workers on the front lines, as the novel coronavirus continues to spread around the globe. Three new cases were announced Monday in Ontario, bringing the Canadian total to 27.
The World Health Organization warned it would soon reach every country, as infections neared 90,000 worldwide, and fears closed museums and cancelled events worldwide. The doors of the Louvre in Paris remained shuttered for the second day in a row.
It was only a matter of time, said Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins, until one of the 300,000 passengers taking Toronto’s regional transportation system every day tested positive for the virus that causes the disease known as COVID-19.
It happened last week, when a woman returning from Iran took a GO bus from Pearson airport to Richmond Hill, later testing positive.
“We were prepared for it and we took action that was perhaps not completely called for,” Aikins said Monday. “Good pandemic planning means you’re always doing extra and you’re ahead of things.”
Those actions included taking the bus the patient had ridden temporarily out of service, and disinfecting it with a microbe-killing agent called aegis. The agency alerted the public and reached out to the approximately 35 other passengers who were on the bus so that they can be screened for virus.
It’s all part of an outbreak plan that the agency developed post-SARS, and kicked into action about six weeks ago when it began stockpiling hand sanitizer and protective equipment, like gloves, in case COVID-19 broke out into the community.
The union representing both regional and local transit workers in Toronto, the Amalgamated Transit Union, praised Metrolinx for its handling of the Richmond Hill passenger, but said more needs to be done to reassure their members that it’s safe to go to work — particularly on routes connecting to the airport.
“I think vehicles servicing the airport should be wiped down after every trip into the airport,” ATU International Vice President Manny Sforza said.
“Because typically three or four days later we could find out someone who tested positive was on the vehicle.”
Sforza also said it was time to have a discussion about making “personal protective equipment” available to transit operators — such as face masks.
“I think it would be a responsible approach for everybody to say employees entering the airport should have the option to wear a mask,” Sforza said. “If someone gets on the bus and sneezes in their direction, there’s only so much hand sanitizer is going to accomplish.”
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The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends face masks for front- line health-care providers dealing with potential COVID-19 patients, but does not make the same recommendation to members of the public.
The agency says the risk to the public of contracting COVID-19 remains low.
There are now 18 cases in Ontario, eight in British Columbia, and one in Quebec. They have all been linked to travel to one of the virus’s hot zones, or close contact with someone who had recently travelled to one of those countries, said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam on Monday.
Canada has identified China (mainland), Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea as “affected areas.”
There have not been any deaths, or any cases of community transmission — spread without a travel connection — in this country so far.
Dr. Eleanor Fish, an infectious disease expert at the University of Toronto who was involved in studying SARS in 2003, said Canada may expect to see more cases of COVID-19, particularly from people who travelled recently from Iran, but said it’s “very, very unlikely” that the virus will break out in the general population in Canada.
“I think the community is highly tuned to anybody who is coughing, sneezing, who looks sick — to be alert that they should stay away and maybe, if they develop any symptoms to go to their local general practitioner,” Fish said.
“If there’s good health control,” as there is in Canada post-SARS, she said, “There won’t be an outbreak.”
Fish said it’s good for the general population to be cautious around sick people in an effort to ensure COVID-19 doesn’t break out into the general population.
TransLink, the regional transportation authority in B.C., said it’s closely monitoring the progress of COVID-19 but hasn’t made any changes to the way it operates while the risk to the public remains low. Spokesperson Jill Drews said the buses and trains run by TransLink’s subsidiaries are regularly disinfected.
Aikins said Metrolinx is prepared to deal with more cases of COVID-19 patients on its system, as they arise.
“It’s very difficult to know where this virus is going and how much it’s going to circulate,” she said. “Any big organization like ours that has lots of staff and lots of customers so you’re vulnerable.”
She said the agency is doing everything it can to make sure staff remain healthy, and the transportation system keeps moving people where they need to go.
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