Culture

Being a Bus Driver During COVID-19: 'He Spit in His Hands and Touched Everything'

Screenshot/KGW TV

As we’ve learned in this COVID-19 outbreak, stacking people on top of each other in cities and forcing them onto mass transit isn’t conducive to good public health. Ask any New Yorker. Or anyone in Portland, Oregon, where planners have been attempting to replicate the densities of big cities in timber country for decades.

But how would you like to be the drivers ferrying this germy swath of humanity around in all states of sickness?

The threat is real in Portland, Oregon, where the transit drivers’ union is getting angry at TriMet, which operates the light rail trains and buses throughout the metropolitan area.

And it’s not your typical we-want-a-raise gambit at a vulnerable time.

Drivers are afraid and their bosses are confused about what to do with people who might be afflicted with the potentially deadly disease.

KGW-TV reports that confusion reigns between dispatchers and drivers:

Audio recordings between bus drivers and dispatchers help illustrate the confusion at TriMet, as the transit agency struggles to deal with instances of overcrowded buses and possible contamination from coronavirus.

In one case, a TriMet driver found himself looking for guidance from supervisors after a passenger potentially contaminated the bus purposely.

“He spit all over his hands and just started touching every single part of the bus,” the unnamed driver says in the dispatch recording from March 26.

The driver didn’t have any sanitizing wipes or safety equipment, according to the recording. He was told to return to the garage, but dispatchers weren’t sure how or where the bus driver should clean-off.

“I’m not OSHA. I’m not a hazmat team. I don’t know,” the TriMet driver said, looking for advice from dispatch. “I was going to call the fire department here in a minute.”

“That might be an ultimate solution,” explained the TriMet dispatcher, who offers compassion, yet limited guidance in the recording.

Another person who said she was a driver came into contact with a sick woman who climbed into her bus and asked to be taken to the hospital. A woman was later reported to have died of COVID-19 at Providence Hospital – where she’d said she wanted to go.

The person who claimed to be the driver wrote on Reddit:

Sweating and swaying I kept asking if she was okay. Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and asked if I could call medical for her, she complied. I parked my bus at 50th and Caruthers right in front of the Maverick apartment building.

The emt shows up wearing an N95 mask while I sat there completely unprotected and unprepared for this pandemic. He asked her symptoms and she coughed the whole time, red eyes, said she wanted Providence. Initially I thought she said she was 59 but when he asked she said 69. Reading this morning’s announcement of a woman who passed away at Providence hospital being 69 gave me chills.

When they sent me home I was instructed not to enter the garage under any circumstance, “Just leave your pouch in the seat and exit the bus at the spotter shack” I was also told to make sure I was clear for work (from my pcp) for the next day.
I walked back to my car because I was so scared to infect anyone. I knew I had just been in very close proximity with a woman on her way out of this carnation for 20+ minutes.

The driver claims she was later cleared to drive.

The advice nurse instructed me to take a shower and immediately strip my clothes off when entering into my home, as well as sanitize anything I touch between my car and the shower.

I continually think of every single action I made that day with tears running down my face absolutely terrified of infecting my kids.

So when my doctor asked me if I had any symptoms outside of this stubborn cough I can’t shake, and cleared me for work, I immediately doubted the safety measures put into place to protect our society.

KGW reports the driver’s union president says TriMet has no official written policy for dealing with contaminated drivers – only an ever-changing verbal one and a draft proposal that hasn’t been put into effect.

Shirley Block, union president of ATU 757 representing TriMet drivers and operators, said the agency has been slow to respond to safety concerns surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

“They claim they have a plan now, but for weeks we have been trying to get them to get a plan in place,” said Block.

The bus operator has already ceased taking money for bus fare to protect drivers.

One driver complained that it’s difficult to get tested because the tests are for front-line medical people and others showing symptoms. The driver also complained that they’re the ones driving those very people.