Transit union wants Winnipeg bus drivers prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines

The union representing Winnipeg bus drivers is pushing for its members to be prioritized to receive the COVID-19 vaccine after a coughing passenger told a driver he had tested positive for the virus and needed to get to the hospital.

Winnipeg Transit has no clear protocols in place to protect the driver and passengers in these types of situations, says a letter from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 addressed to Mayor Brian Bowman. 

It includes a story from a bus driver who said a passenger, who was wearing a mask and coughing excessively, got on the bus and told the driver he had COVID-19 and needed to be taken to Health Sciences Centre. 

The bus driver told the union that he called the transit control centre to ask what he should do, but they had no protocol for how to handle the situation, the letter says. 

The driver said the control centre said he should be fine since he was wearing a mask and behind a plastic shield. However, the driver is still concerned that he may have caught the virus.

James Van Gerwen, executive vice-president of ATU Local 1505, said he’s heard of incidents where passengers are coughing or not wearing masks quite often, making drivers concerned for their safety. 

In another incident, the control centre told the driver to stop the bus and police would pick up the passenger and escort them off, Gerwen said.

Bus drivers should be prioritized to receive the vaccine because their risk of exposure is far greater than the rest of the population and they are essential to keeping the city moving, Van Gerwen said. 

“If we get an infection rate going through our ranks, you may be left in the cold, because the bus won’t show up if the drivers are all going to go down, and that’s a great possibility,” he said. 

“They’re out there every day, picking up thousands of people every day.”

Transit buses are the only place where you can have multiple people indoors together, even under public health orders, he said. 

He’s not sure how many drivers have contracted the virus in recent weeks. 

Mayor pushing for details 

A spokesperson for the mayor said Bowman has been trying to get details from the province about their COVID-19 vaccination rollout plans in the city since early December. 

He wrote to Premier Brian Pallister again last week, but has not received a response, Jeremy Davis said.

“The provincial government is responsible for determining how priority access for the vaccine will be administered. Access to these details are being requested so the city can determine how, and when, provincial plans for vaccine prioritization will affect our essential services personnel,” Davis said. 

A spokesperson for the province said vaccine supply continues to be a limiting factor and at this time, it is prioritizing groups based on recommendations from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.

At this point, health-care workers who meet certain criteria, residents of long-term care homes vulnerable people in First Nations are getting vaccinated.

“There are many sectors in health care, emergency response and in other areas that are all doing important work — once the province has more certainty on vaccine supply, those groups will be added in due course,” the spokesperson said.