Inside a Metrolinx hosted COVID-19 vaccination clinic for transit staff and customers

Earlier this week, Metrolinx created a vaccine clinic, and opened the doors to employees and the public. Metrolinx’s well-known head of Media Relations, Anne Marie Aikins, was in the middle of it all. As someone who has given many hours to volunteer at similar clinics, she wades in with a column to talk about what a celebration it became.

It had a dose of everything.

Even blessing from a group of travelling monks.

With GO trains stopping every few minutes in the background, the location was perfect for Metrolinx to host its first COVID-19 vaccination clinic this week. At Guildwood GO Station in Scarborough, nearly 200 shots were put in the arms of eager transit staff, contractors, customers and members of the general public – including a group of Buddhist monks, visitors from Prince Edward Island for the past year helping with recovery efforts.

Image shows monks under a tent
A group of monks wait their turn to take their shots. (Anne Marie Aikins photo)

The vaccination clinic organized with the Ontario Ministry of Health and Canadian Red Cross – who committed to another clinic in the future for second doses – gave Metrolinx staff a much-needed shot of hope that better days are ahead.

In spite of the sweltering temps and some rain, there was a celebratory atmosphere at the clinic with music and even an appearance by GO Transit mascot GO Bear – who stepped out of his pandemic hibernation for the party and cheered on every person who got a shot.

There was even an ice cream truck.

Image shows the line of people getting their shot
People line up at the clinic. (Anne Marie Aikins photo)

A variety of frontline and office Metrolinx staff volunteered to assist on site to help manage the lineup, hand out water and check on people post-vaccination.

I have volunteered at other vaccine clinics in the city – it’s an easy way to give back to our incredible healthcare workers and makes me feel good. It also helped keep me busy on weekends during lockdown and most importantly, it gives me hope seeing all those people willing to take the time to line up to get protected and keep their loved ones safe.

Curious by nature, I always ask people that look approachable how they feel after being vaccinated – note to self, many Buddhist monks apparently take a vow of silence – or why they like to volunteer at clinics. So, I asked a few people at the clinic.

They all had their personal reasons, like eagerness to get back to normal days when hugs with their grandmother or beers with friends wasn’t a safety hazard. I heard very sad stories about losing loved ones to this virus, a tragically consistent theme at every clinic.

Image shows Verster and a staff member.
Metrolinx CEO, Phil Verster, right, along with a GO Transit staff member at the clinic. (Anne Marie Aikins photo)

A 20-year employee told me he wanted to work at the clinic this week after we all felt the blow of the tragic losses of 215 Indigenous children in B.C. as well as a Muslim family out for a walk in London, Ontario.

He needed to feel a little less powerless.   

One young station colleague with a huge personality took me aback when she told me she wanted to work at the clinic because she lived through a rough case of COVID-19 and really appreciated it when she heard from CEO Phil Verster personally when he checked on her well-being. 

Although she’s feeling well now, contracting the virus was no picnic, she said.

“Getting a call from your CEO, well that made me feel deep down that we really are all in this together – it’s not just a saying,” she explained.

Verster came by the clinic to chat with staff, as well as media who were covering the event.

Reporters asked him why hosting a vaccination clinic was important for Metrolinx.

“Vaccination – for both our customers and staff – is one of the most critically important ways to keep everyone safe and is key to people returning to their normal commute,” Verster said.

With transit ridership plummeting during the pandemic, reporters asked “is he confident riders will come back?”

“As vaccination rates ramp up and more and more people become fully protected,” Verster explained, “I believe customers will feel confident in our commitment to their safety and return to public transit.”

Verster added that the pandemic has no doubt changed how and when people commute and the future is difficult to predict.

“However, there are a number of things we do know for sure – public transit will always be an essential part of urban life and given the expected population growth over the next 30 years, we know we need more transit,” He noted.

“Over the next few years, we must continue to build the confidence in our transit customers, so they return to their trains and buses,” Verster said.

Metrolinx surveyed transit customers and what we heard was that they want to visibly see a commitment to their safety – such as frequent, visible cleaning on vehicles and in stations, mandatory masks, good ventilation, UV cleaners in stations, and those new dividers between vehicle seats.

Along with all of the dozens of safety actions already in place, vaccination is a key part to recovery and protecting staff and customers, Verster reiterated to reporters.

The vaccines along with our diligence to the safety measures for all these months is working. As vaccination rates increase, positive cases decrease right across the province – and at Metrolinx.

In the past 15 months, the total number of Metrolinx staff testing positive for the virus is now 162 out of over 4,500 employees – with two new infections in the past two weeks.

Image shows Anne Marie and GO Bear
Anne Marie Aikins, along with GO Bear, at the event. (Anne Marie Aikins photo)

To support the vaccination rollout, an internal education campaign has been launched and staff have been given three hours paid time off per dose to ensure there are no barriers to getting vaccinated.

We’d like to boost our rate even higher, so an internal education campaign is underway, and staff are supported as well with three hours paid time off to ensure there are no barriers to getting vaccinated.  

Misinformation can be barrier as well, so we’ve planned a virtual vaccination question and answer session for our staff with Dr. Vinita Dubey, Associate Medical Officer of Health at Toronto Public Health (TPH). The event is booked in the coming days to help inform staff who may have any lingering doubts or questions.

Dubey is a long-time familiar face who has been around since way back in the day when I worked with TPH throughout the H1N1 pandemic. She’s great at distilling complex, medical information into plain language and taught me a lot about communicating during public health emergencies.

Communicating with you, our readers in a transparent way since the pandemic began remains our commitment to you and will continue until COVID-19 is no longer a threat to public safety. 

In the meantime, you know the drill: keep wearing your mask on public transit even if you are fully vaccinated until we receive new guidance from public health – we will keep you closely updated – stay home if ill, wash your hands, and please consider protecting the people you love by getting vaccinated.  

Story by Anne Marie Aikins, Metrolinx senior manager of media.