As a new wave of coronavirus sweeps Washington state, positive cases are ticking up at local transit agencies, where workers have continued driving and servicing buses since the start of the pandemic. 

At King County Metro, employees have reported 20 positive tests from the start of this month to Nov. 21. That’s up from six in October and about five or fewer per month throughout the summer. 

“We have seen a big uptick in the last 30 days,” said Ken Price, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local (ATU) 587, which represents Metro workers. The total count includes workers who are telecommuting, according to Metro. Price said most of the workers testing positive are drivers.

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Metro does not have “any reasons to believe this is the result of (one) outbreak,” said Terry White, interim general manager.

“We are a microcosm of the region, if not the country,” White said. “As we have seen positive cases rise within the county, we have seen that rise within our own workforce.”

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In Snohomish County, Community Transit reported eight cases so far this month, up from four or fewer cases per month throughout the summer and earlier this fall. The November count is nearly as high as in March, when the virus began to spread here and Community Transit reported 10 cases.

Pierce Transit reported six positive tests in November, four of them drivers, according to the agency. That’s up from recent months. Since March, the agency has reported three or fewer positive tests each month. 

Other agencies, such as Sound Transit, have not so far seen an uptick in cases this month.

Among transit employees who tested positive, it’s not clear how many caught the virus at work.

The cases, while a small number of overall transit workers, have reignited concerns about safety and bus drivers’ frequent exposure to the public. 

At least three local transit workers have died in the coronavirus outbreak. Community Transit driver Scott Ryan died in March. King County Metro driver Samina Hameed died in April and a second Metro driver, Mike Winkler, died in June. 

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In some key ways, public transit systems are more prepared to keep workers and riders safe than they were when the virus first hit earlier this year. 

Some agencies have installed safety measures such as plexiglass barriers near drivers or mask dispensers for passengers. Masks are required, certain bus and train seats are blocked off, and ridership remains less than half of its prepandemic levels, leaving more space on many buses. King County Metro has touted upgraded HVAC filters.

Still, challenges persist. Cold weather makes it harder to keep bus windows open for ventilation. Asymptomatic spread and delayed symptoms make preventing outbreaks difficult: Screening employees at the door isn’t enough to prevent spread at a workplace. On board buses, mask requirements and passenger limits remain tough to enforce.

At King County Metro throughout September and October, an average of about 11% of trips were over COVID-19 passenger limits, according to agency data. Metro said that number appears to be ticking down so far this month. Sound Transit has an online dashboard where riders can see which sites and times of day are most likely to have trains reaching the COVID-19 passenger limits. 

In a random sample of observed trips in recent weeks, Metro found 83% to 85% of passengers were wearing masks.

Concerned about riders without masks, ATU 587 has pushed for a “no mask, no ride” policy, a step up from the agency’s current mask requirement. Short of that, Metro should consider returning to practices from this spring, when riders boarded through the back doors, Price said. 

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Workers are feeling “vulnerable,” Price said. “They’re feeling left out there.”

Metro does not have immediate plans to change its mask requirement but is adding mask dispensers to buses on busy routes, updating contact tracing policies and urging employees to take precautions in their daily lives, White said. 

Experts say protecting transit workers takes a “layered” approach.

“It’s all of these controls together that are making a difference,” said Marissa Baker, an assistant professor of occupational health at the University of Washington School of Public Health. She has been studying transportation workers during the pandemic.

Though plexiglass barriers and regular access to testing can give employees peace of mind, ventilation, filtration and distance between people on board buses and in work spaces are likely the most effective measures, Baker said.

It can be hard to definitively track where people get the virus, whether at work, in transit or in some other way, Baker said.

The state has reported fewer outbreaks in “transportation/shipping/delivery” settings than in higher-risk settings like grocery stores and agriculture, but more than in some other settings, like bars or office-based jobs.

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For transit riders, research so far has not found transit to be a major source of coronavirus spread.

Public Health — Seattle & King County has not released data specifically regarding public transit, but the county is seeing spread in “every type of workplace,” said public-health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin during a media briefing Wednesday.

After five Community Transit maintenance employees tested positive in two weeks, the agency told employees it would require those who work in a unit with more than two positive cases in a two-week period to be tested “if it is determined in consultation with local public health officials that it may be beneficial,” according to a Nov. 4 email.

Stephen “Flash” Murphy, steward for International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 130, which represents Community Transit’s maintenance workers, said the agency has done a “darn good job.” Murphy cited hazard pay for workers, temperature screenings and access to masks. Maintenance employees who tested positive have returned to work, he said.

“We’re doing our damnedest to keep the buses clean and safe for the passengers,” Murphy said. “We’re just like anybody. We have mothers, fathers, grandparents — nobody wants to take COVID-19 home.”

Kathleen Custer, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1576, which represents Community Transit drivers, called the testing policy a “good, proactive approach,” though she still has questions about how the policy will work. 

As cases increase, drivers remain worried about interactions with passengers at the front of the bus and hope for plexiglass barriers and more enforcement of passenger limits, she said.