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Coronavirus can spread on public transit. Here’s what commuters need to know

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Editor’s Note: This story was published before the World Health Organization declared novel coronavirus a pandemic and Canada’s chief health officer labelled the virus a “serious public health threat.” Follow the latest coronavirus coverage.

Amid rising concerns over the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus in Canada, public health officials are reinforcing the importance of good hygiene — especially for frequent public transit users.

On Sunday, Metrolinx said a woman who tested positive for COVID-19 was a passenger on a GO transit bus to Richmond Hill, Ont. Another Toronto man used public transit for several days before also being diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 5. He had previously travelled to Las Vegas.

This news can be scary for people who use public transit regularly, especially as the number of cases in Canada are on the rise.

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READ MORE: Woman who later tested positive for COVID-19 was passenger on GO bus to Richmond Hill

“Public transportation is safe. That’s the big picture,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, infectious diseases specialist with the University of Toronto and the University Health Network.

However, public spaces like trains, buses and transit stations are places where people gather in large numbers, which has the potential to increase the transmission of COVID-19.

“We know how it’s transmitted,” Bogoch said. “We know that it can stick to surfaces for a period of time, although we’re not entirely sure of how long it can be viable on surfaces.”

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At a press conference Thursday, WHO officials said studies on this question were ongoing.

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“What people [need to] recognize is that the risk is still extremely small to get this infection on public transportation,” Bogoch said.

How coronavirus spreads

“This virus is not SARS, it is not MERS, and it is not influenza,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said at a press conference Tuesday.

“COVID-19 spreads less efficiently than flu and transmission does not appear to be driven by people who are not sick.”

While the numbers are constantly changing, the best current estimates are that each infected person will on average infect between two and four others, Dr. Alon Vaisman, an infection control and infectious diseases physician at Toronto’s University Health Network, previously told Global News.

READ MORE: Ontario reports three new cases of COVID-19, including U.S. travellers

That is a bit more than influenza, but much fewer than measles, where each case might infect on average 18 other people.

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“Like all other respiratory viruses and coronaviruses, this coronavirus is spread through droplet transmission,” Vaisman said.

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What that means is that when an infected person coughs or sneezes, they expel tiny water droplets containing the virus to a distance of about six feet away, he said.

These droplets are heavy enough that they can’t stay in the air for longer than a few minutes, so they fall onto whatever is under them: a table, for example, or your arm.

When you bring these droplets to a mucous membrane, like your eye or your mouth, that’s how you might catch the virus.

Protecting yourself on transit

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To make the risk of spread on public transit even smaller than it already is, Bogoch recommends that users practice “impeccable hand hygiene.”

This means “if you’re going to be touching high contact surfaces … make sure to use an alcohol hand sanitizer or wash your hands afterwards, and be mindful not to touch your face right now,” Bogoch said.

“It’s really as simple as that.”

It can also help to slow the spread of coronavirus and other germs to practice what Bogoch calls “cough hygiene.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Canadian transit providers plan safeguards against COVID-19 outbreak

“Don’t cough directly into your hand and then touch things or into the air around,” he said. He recommends stifling your cough with your elbow.

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Should you stop taking public transit? Bogoch doesn’t believe this step is necessary.

“To each their own. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions, but I think people need to recognize that their risk on public transportation is extremely low,” he said.

Efforts to clean public transit

Some Canadian transit agencies are quietly taking steps to protect customers against the novel coronavirus that’s been sounding alarm bells around the world.

Several say they have stepped up efforts to clean vehicles and stations and switched to more aggressive anti-microbial cleansers as a precaution.

Metrolinx spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins says long-lasting disinfectant spray was tested on one of its GO Transit trains recently, and is being rolled out to the entire network after a patient who tested positive for COVID-19 used one of its vehicles to travel home from the airport.

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Aikins said the product primarily targets bacteria and mould rather than viruses, but the company views it as a sensible precaution.

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“We think it’s just incumbent on us to do whatever we can to protect our staff and our customers,” she said.

Aikins said the presence of an infected passenger was not unexpected and could happen again as the outbreak runs its course, but the company is prepared.

Aikins said the bus on which the patient travelled has also been taken out of service for thorough decontamination. All other vehicles and terminals are being subjected to more regular cleaning, she said, adding hand sanitizer is also being made more widely available to passengers.

Similar measures are being taken at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), said spokesman Stuart Green.

Railings and other regular points of contact in TTC stations are getting daily wipe downs rather than weekly, he said, adding a disinfectant wipe down has also been added to the daily bathroom-cleaning routine.

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Similar measures are in place on the transit provider’s subways, buses and streetcars, he said, adding the company is also considering switching to a long-lasting disinfectant.

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Green said the TTC’s action plan is based on advice from Toronto Public Health, which along with comparable agencies across the country, has described the risk of contracting the virus as very low.

“Right now, they’ve told us that what we’re doing is fine,” he said, “so we’re comfortable that we’re doing all we need to do now.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Canada: Here’s a timeline of cases across the provinces

Transit agencies in Montreal and Vancouver said they, too, are taking cues from public health officials, who have long maintained that individual measures such as washing hands regularly, covering coughs and sneezes and staying home if ill, offer the most effective protection from the virus.

“Provincial Health Services says the risk to the public and staff remains low and it has not directed us to make any operational changes at this time,” said a statement from Vancouver’s TransLink. “We are working closely with Provincial Health Services Authority to monitor this situation.”

The Societe de Transport de Montreal said it’s urging passengers and staff to observe recommended hygiene protocols, but offered no other details.

‘Shared responsibility’

When it comes to whether public transit agencies should be doing more, Bogoch believes a shared responsibility.

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“On the one hand, we’re in the midst of a global epidemic,” he said. “On the other hand, we can do small things that are truly helpful, that will reduce our risk and we can continue with our day-to-day lives.”

In reality, public transit users need to do their part to practise good hygiene and ensure they aren’t spreading anything to their peers. If you have symptoms of COVID-19, stay home.

“Organizations have to do their part, for sure, but so do individuals. We’re in this together.”

The new coronavirus was first identified in Hubei province, China, in December 2019 and spread rapidly. While the outbreak has begun to level off in China, it seems the virus has found a foothold in a number of countries around the world, and it continues to spread.

Confused about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is very low for Canadians, but they caution against travel to affected areas (a list can be found here). If you do travel to these places, they recommend you self-monitor to see whether you develop symptoms and if you do, to contact public health authorities.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

Visit full COVID-19 coverage on Global News.

— With files from the Associated Press and Global News’ Leslie Young

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Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca