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COVID-19 case at Burnside garage carries ‘no risk’ to public, say public health officials

Burnside Maintenance Department
Public health officials say there is no risk to the general public after a Halifax Transit maintenance worker tested positive for COVID-19. Alexa MacLean/Global Halifax

Based on the assessment of a confirmed COVID-19 case in a Halifax Transit maintenance worker at the Burnside Maintenance Department, Nova Scotia public health officials say there is “no risk” to transit riders or the general public.

According to a notice sent to Halifax Transit staff from director Dave Reage, the agency learned of an employee who had tested positive for the new coronavirus on Wednesday. All maintenance staff on the evening shift were sent home, while staff scheduled to work Thursday morning were told not to come in.

“Thorough disinfection of the Burnside Maintenance Department workspace is currently underway, with a particular focus on high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs, work surfaces, tools, etc.,” Reage said in the notice.

Coronavirus outbreak: 17 more COVID-19 cases in Nova Scotia
Coronavirus outbreak: 17 more COVID-19 cases in Nova Scotia

The Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) says public health officials have indicated there is no risk to transit riders or the general public “based on an assessment of the circumstances.” Halifax Transit says it has been taking direction from public health officials regarding all the necessary steps required to safeguard the health of its employees. 

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Coun. Waye Mason says any potential changes to the operation of transit during the COVID-19 outbreak should be led by public health officials.

He cautions that public speculation about necessary transit changes isn’t productive and can sideline public health efforts to update and share accurate information about COVID-19 safety measures.

“Making sure that our employees and the users of transit are safe is entirely the job of public health,” Mason said. “We will do whatever public health tells us to do. If we need to make changes in the transit system, if we need to make changes in the workplace, we will make them, but what’s important is that people do not speculate.”

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Transit union raises concerns

The president of the union representing Halifax Transit workers says the public should have been made aware of a maintenance worker testing positive for COVID-19 before buses were back on the road.

Ken Wilson, president of the Halifax Transit union, says he learned at 10 p.m. Wednesday that a bus maintenance worker was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Wilson was told the transit service would be shutting down its Burnside maintenance facility immediately for deep cleaning.

“As far as operations was concerned at 11:30 last night, buses and operators were safe to continue on this morning,” Wilson said.

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Coronavirus outbreak: 17 more COVID-19 cases in Nova Scotia
Coronavirus outbreak: 17 more COVID-19 cases in Nova Scotia

Wilson says he’s heard from multiple bus operators who don’t feel safe with the measures in place.

“Operators have concerns about cross-contamination and who exactly is positive and did they have any contact with them, so there’s too many unanswered questions at this point,” he said.

“They failed to inform the public until after buses were sent out this morning. Unbelievable.”

READ MORE: Halifax contact centre employee calls for temporary closure after COVID-19 diagnosis at workplace

Wilson says he’s asked Reage for written confirmation from public health officials that indicates buses and operators were safe to come to the Burnside maintenance facility but has yet to receive it.

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“We need the city to reach out to us and sit down with us. We need to stop trying to put this together with Popsicle sticks and elastic bands. We need to sit down and work this out,” he said.

Wilson is calling for a 24-hour pause to service while a new safety strategy is discussed.

“It allows us to disinfect the fleet and to put something out there for the essential workers,” he said. “It was only a matter of time. We’ve been saying it for the last 10 to 14 days, and here we are.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia sees largest jump in COVID-19 cases since virus arrived in the province

A spokesperson with the HRM says safety measures around COVID-19 are being assessed on a daily basis and that there are no plans to temporarily suspend transit services.

“Regarding a possible transit pause: transit is seen as necessary by the province, and as such, Halifax Transit continues to provide this municipal service,” Erin DiCarlo, a communications adviser with the HRM, wrote in an email statement.