Like many services across the municipality, Halifax Transit service is being impacted as the organization deals with staffing shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every day more of our members are self-isolating,” said Ken Wilson, president of the union that represents drivers.
Wilson estimates there are currently at least 40 drivers isolating for various reasons.
Buses are still operating because transit is deemed an essential service, and with community spread in Halifax, buses are vulnerable.
Over the past several weeks, bus routes have been listed as exposure sites almost daily.
“It’s an extra layer of stress,” said Wilson, adding that drivers have to pay attention 100 per cent of the time, but it’s challenging when they’re worried about their health and safety.
Passengers aboard bus routes with known exposures are told to get tested and self-isolate until they receive a negative test result, but in a letter circulated to transit drivers from Dr. Robert Strang this week, there was a different message for drivers.
“Public Health does not recommend testing and self-isolating for operators on PSA routes,” the letter read.
“That letter wasn’t very well received by the majority of members” said Wilson.
“It’s hard for us to understand how we could be not impacted from an airborne disease here in the same air as the passengers.”
The letter goes on to say that drivers are at less of a risk “because appropriate control measures have been implemented (e.g. masks, polycarbonate barriers, daily sanitizing of high-touch areas on buses, blocking of the first seat behind the driver on Nova Buses).”
But Wilson says these protection measures are doing little to ease the anxieties of drivers during this third wave.
For the most part, these measures were all implemented during the first wave, when there was more concern around spread by high-touch surfaces.
It is now clear that COVID-19 is mostly an airborne spread virus and the variants present during the third wave are more easily transmissible and lead to more severe illness.
“Our members are scared about the airborne virus.”
Wilson pointed out the barriers placed in buses to protect drivers do not go from the floor to ceiling and ultimately can’t prevent airborne spread. He also said there are still many riders who do not wear a mask but will still approach drivers asking for directions or other information, and that conversation can be a risk for aerosol spread.
“If I turn the fans on I kick up all the particles and distribute it all over the bus, if I open the backdoor everything gets sucked to the front, if I open the front door everything gets sucked to the back,” he said. “So it’s those concerns we have that aren’t being addressed.”
Halifax Mayor Mike Savage says he takes the concerns of operators seriously, and said they are constantly looking at ways to improve safety for everyone. When asked what’s being done to address their concerns, Savage pointed to the polycarbonate barriers and signs blocking off seats as current solutions.
“We appreciate very much our operators, like anyone else doing essential work right now,” said Savage.
But Wilson says drivers aren’t feeling very appreciated right now and want more done to protect them.
One solution they’re proposing is the reinstatement of back-door boarding, that was in place last year at the start of the pandemic, as a way to further separate drivers and the public. The union also says drivers should have been prioritized in the vaccine rollout.