San Jose bus drivers facing a steep rise in COVID-19 cases
A woman departs from a 522 bus near SAP Center in downtown San Jose. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Silicon Valley’s bus drivers have spent hours each day in enclosed spaces. Each bus trip carries dozens of passengers, some of whom don’t wear masks.

And the experience has been terrifying.

“It’s no different than having a disruptive passenger who is on your bus, who is looking at you and wants to assault you,” said one bus driver for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation from the agency. “It becomes stressful, it becomes frustrating, it becomes emotionally draining.”

At least 164 VTA employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began last year, according to VTA spokesman Ken Blackstone. A high proportion of those cases arose since the start of this year: 66 as of Jan. 28.

John Courtney, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, said the vast majority of VTA workers afflicted with the virus are front-line workers, including bus drivers, light rail operators and mechanics.

He said bus drivers in particular are feeling stressed from working in close contact with so many people day after day — an unknown number of whom are infected with COVID-19.

“I just spoke to an operator (last week) — he had a passenger who had been on the bus for more than an hour, and when he left he told the driver that he’d tested positive for COVID,” Courtney said. “He can’t drive with his mind thinking about that. You’re not concentrating on the road.”

Front-door loading blamed

Many workers pinpoint front-door boarding as a major factor in the rise in cases. VTA had suspended front-door boarding and fare collection in March, saying the policies would increase social distancing and reduce the spread of the virus. However, the agency resumed collecting fares in August.

“VTA was a front-runner in doing back-door boarding,” Courtney said. “Now that there’s a major increase, they refuse to go back to back-door boarding.”

Blackstone said VTA is evaluating the union’s request to reinstate rear-door boarding, and that according to the agency’s internal review, most cases have arisen from workers’ contact with their own family members outside of work.

“Any decision will be based on data and whether there is good scientific evidence that the brief interactions when customers board at the front of the bus is a vector of transmission, which is no different than people going to the grocery store and having brief interactions with others,” Blackstone said.

A notice sent by VTA that was distributed to employees following an outbreak of COVID-19. Image courtesy of a VTA employee.

No outside contact tracers

Zac Bodle, an assistant business agent for the union, said VTA uses supervisors and other staff rather than professional contact tracers to track cases. Bodle said the inconsistency in contact tracing, and supervisors’ incentives to under-report exposures, is another major reason for the surge in cases.

Bodle said supervisors will often approve paid time off for themselves and their friends at work, but other workers will have to go through a long process of using their own paid sick time and even vacation time.

“It’s biased… it all depends on who you are,” Bodle said. “Right away, it seems they want to blame it on the person getting it from the outside, when everybody’s pretty truthful about just going home to work… it’s always a battle.”

Blackstone confirmed that VTA conducts contact tracing through an internal review process, and said the agency identifies anyone who was within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more.

“VTA then notifies those employees who have been identified as being in close contact with instructions to remain out of work and to be tested,” Blackstone said.

No notification about cases, driver says

But the anonymous VTA bus driver said he was not notified by the agency when his supervisor, whom he’d had a meeting with, tested positive.

“I would’ve slept in my car, I would’ve slept outside. I would have gone out and bought myself a little tent or something,” he said. “I thank God that I got tested.”

The driver, who is under 40 years old, said he tested positive earlier this month and still suffers from symptoms, including body aches and the loss of his sense of taste.

“If I climb 10-12 steps at my house, I’m already tired. I’m already out of breath,” he said. “For me to feel so fragile and so vulnerable to something like this, I just begin to think about my mom and dad and my grandchild. … I have way too much to lose now.”

The driver said he’s been careful not to go anywhere outside of work and home to prevent vulnerable family members from being infected.

“I don’t go out shopping, I don’t go out to dinner. I have not seen my parents at all,” he said. “I have a sister who is currently fighting cancer, so it’s even more of a reason to stay away from my family.”

His positive test results came days after watching his 2-month-old grandchild after his son became ill, the driver said. The family is still awaiting test results for the infant.

Another VTA bus driver, who also wished to remain anonymous, said four of her friends and family members have died from COVID-19, and that all the bus drivers she knows take the virus very seriously.

“I can’t even tell you how many drivers I know who are sick right now, some of them coming right out of the hospital,” she said. “One guy says ‘It feels like there’s bricks on my chest.’ … My feeling right now is that I need to do everything I can do to help keep my coworkers and my family and their families safe.”

She said VTA’s claim that the steep rise in cases is due to workers flouting county health guidelines simply doesn’t reflect the reality of drivers’ daily exposure to the public.

“We’re trying to survive out here while you’re sitting at home, making decisions about our lives,” she said. “Come eat lunch on the bus with us, and tell me you’re not ridden with anxiety.”

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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