Ottawa’s transit commission is pushing local and provincial health officials to recognize the role OC Transpo operators have played in keeping the city running during the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping to bump train and bus drivers in the vaccination queue amid a recent surge in coronavirus infections affecting transit workers.
More than 100 OC Transpo staff across the entire organization have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to an update at Wednesday morning’s transit commission meeting.
Of those cases, 26 employees are currently recovering from the disease in self-isolation.
OC Transpo has seen a recent jump in COVID-19 cases, with Ottawa city council receiving reports of eight operators testing positive for the virus over a recent eight-day period.
Transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert attempted to find out how many of the total cases are traced to workplace transmission, but OC Transpo boss John Manconi said he’s been advised by medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches that he can’t share that information for privacy reasons.
Transit operators are listed in the second priority group of essential workers as part of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine sequencing plans, but several commissioners speaking Wednesday wanted to get the city’s bus and train drivers bumped higher in the order.
Councillors Riley Brockington and Glen Gower both put forward motions looking to get front-line OC Transpo employees prioritization in vaccine sequencing, but others pointed out that the much-debated public health topic of who gets the vaccine and when is well beyond the scope of the transit commission.
“We are not in a position in transit commission to be decreeing, or making an edict, about what group of essential workers is more at risk than others and should be prioritized. That should be left up to public health experts,” Wright-Gilbert said.
Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, who also chairs the Ottawa Board of Health, reflected on the board’s four-plus-hour meeting on Monday evening, during which vaccine sequencing and prioritizing essential workers dominated the conversation.
“Vaccine sequencing is obviously a very difficult maze to get through,” he said.
Etches reiterated at that meeting that an approach that prioritizes vaccinating residents by age and those who live in high-risk neighbourhoods for transmission is the most effective strategy to reduce hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19.
Manconi said Wednesday that OC Transpo workers are mostly looking for “certainty” as to when their turn comes up in the vaccine queue.
“It’s the when,” he said.
Brockington said that even if the transit commission could not materially affect vaccine sequencing in Ottawa, he wanted to “send a signal” to Ontario decision-makers that transit operators deserve to be high priority, even among essential workers, given the role they’ve played in shuttling other front-line workers on a daily basis during the pandemic.
“We need to speak up. We need to say that these people are important,” he said.
The commission ultimately passed a modified version of Gower’s motion that would send a message to both Etches and Ontario’s chief medical officer of health to “emphasize the role” of transit workers in “enabling essential work” in Ottawa.
This note would then, the commission hopes, be taken into consideration during the sequencing of vaccinations for those who can’t work from home during the pandemic.
The local chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents transit workers in Ottawa, welcomed the motion on Wednesday and noted the fear operators are feeling working on the front lines during the third wave of the pandemic.
“Our transit workers right now are scared not only for themselves but for their families as well as the transit riders and essential workers that they transport every day,” said Clint Crabtree, president of ATU Local 279, in a statement.
“It is now up to Dr. Etches as well as our provincial government to recognize that and take action.”
Asked after the transit commission meeting what OC Transpo is doing to relieve anxiety for its employees, Manconi said the agency has, in addition to earlier measures such as installing protective barriers for drivers on buses, been focusing on staff’s comfort as of late.
He highlighted that OC Transpo will be erecting tents outdoors as places for workers to relax and have lunch with their current break rooms restricted and is setting up a unisex bathroom downtown for drivers, as local businesses usually relied on for breaks have largely been shuttered in the latest shutdown orders.