Anne Marie Aikins on why vaccination is a key part of Metrolinx six point safety checklist for returning customers

As more and more customers return to using GO Transit and UP Express, Metrolinx’s head of media relations and public affairs, Anne Marie Aikins, answers a major question for those riders.

Go ahead and challenge me with this question: ‘Is it safe to return to public transit?’

It will be no surprise if I said ‘yes’. But I’m going to back up the assertion, and explain, as more and more riders return, why GO Transit and UP Express are what they have long been – a very safe travel option that’s far less stressful than getting in your car alone.

We’ve learned a lot over the past 18 months – protecting yourself and others from COVID-19 and the more contagious Delta variant requires a multi-layered approach. No one strategy will lower your risk – it’s not just about wearing masks, or keeping your distance, or washing your hands, or getting vaccinated.

A man stands on a platform.
A customer stands on a GO Transit platform. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

Alone, each of those strategies, public health officials say will make you safer, but together they boost your chances exponentially of staying COVID-free throughout this pandemic.

With this knowledge, Metrolinx implemented a six-point safety checklist consisting of dozens of safety actions, which together have helped keep staff cases low (three per cent of the total Metrolinx workforce has tested positive) and prevented outbreaks on trains or buses.

Let’s start with where we are now, as vaccination levels ramp up and people begin to feel more confident to venture out of their homes.

Gone – hopefully forever – are the days when walking through the downtown core and Union Station felt like a scene from a zombie movie. Today, even as case numbers increase more people are now riding GO Transit and UP Express and most are reporting they feel confident in the layers of safety actions Metrolinx has put in place.

Staff are reporting that weekend ridership is returning the fastest with 40-50 per cent of pre-pandemic travellers taking trips to see family and friends, attend sporting events or visit tourist attractions around the province. With the return of flights, UP Express ridership has doubled over the past month and is currently at 20 per cent of pre-pandemic levels and growing every week. We’ve even seen full trains for the first time in 18 months.

But many of our weekday riders are still reluctant to take a seat concerned – perceived or otherwise – there is a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 on public transit and are choosing instead to sit in frustrating, increasingly jammed traffic.

Studies have shown that transit, thanks to a multi-layered approach to safety, is a safe mode of transportation and much less stress.

If you haven’t ventured back out to public transit to see the actions we’ve put in place, I’ve summarized our checklist below. We’re ready whenever you are.

6-Point COVID Safety Checklist

Vaccination – We want all staff and customers to be vaccinated as it is the most effective way to reduce the chances of infection and weaken the virus’ ability to cause serious illness. Any doubts of the vaccine’s effectiveness are being seriously challenged by the data – the virus is largely being spread by the unvaccinated who are getting sicker than those who got the shot and landing in the hospital.

We know there are many reasons people are reluctant to get vaccinated so we reduced barriers for staff. Metrolinx provides time off to get vaccinated, made it easy by hosting vaccine clinics on site and launched two GO-VAXX buses mobile vaccination clinics. During the first week, close to 1,200 people have received their shot – 41 per cent first jabs – on the GO-VAXX buses and hundreds more received it at our on site clinics.

We know that most of our staff are already fully vaccinated. A recent internal survey found that approximately 81 per cent of Metrolinx employees are fully vaxxed and another two per cent had received their first dose. Those are excellent results but we also know we can get the percentage even higher and recently announced a mandatory vaccination plan for all Metrolinx staff.

Mandatory Masks – Since May 2020, both staff and customers have been wearing face-coverings. As more evidence emerged about the spread of variants, we implemented stronger protection with medical masks and other PPE for Metrolinx staff.

GO bear and Verster pose for a photo.
Metrolinx CEO, Phil Verster, and GO Bear during a vaccination event. (Anne Marie Aikins photo)

Most people riding transit faithfully wear a mask, perhaps not perfectly over their nose and mouth and sometimes not 100 per cent of the time. But they try. Some expect full on enforcement, but we can’t be on every train coach or bus at all times. Instead, staff will educate, remind and provide masks to any customer who doesn’t have a face covering or direct them to vending machines where people can get PPE. Personally, I’m not comfortable being near someone on transit or anywhere who isn’t wearing a mask, so I may politely point to my face and have had good response most of the time. If not, I move. The risk of potential conflict isn’t worth it especially when there are other coaches and seats to occupy.

Distancing – We’re all pretty accepting of the lineups now to get into stores as it is comforting that management is helping to ensure we can all keep a safe distance from each other. Keeping six feet apart limits COVID’s reach and provides another means of protection. But for a public transit system, that can be more difficult to control. We monitor ridership closely to make sure we have enough bus and train service operating, run some extra trips during games and do our best to ensure space for all. We also got innovative. Early on in the pandemic, we installed protective barriers between seats on buses and trains just to give customers a little more protection when ridership volumes increase.

Health Monitoring – To reduce the chance of staff arriving to work ill and potentially spreading the virus to colleagues and customers, all staff must do a documented health check before they enter the office or workplace. Rapid testing has also been implemented at critical locations to catch asymptomatic infections to reduce potential spread and ensure no outbreaks. We also encourage our staff and remind our customers regularly to stay home and off transit if ill.

Infection Control – Working closely with public health units, outbreak management has been critical throughout the pandemic. Whenever a staff member is positive for COVID, a thorough safety assessment is completed, and any potential contacts are isolated at home and away from the worksite. We also committed from the onset to full transparency – we report regularly our staff cases in Metrolinx News and to individual staff teams.

Although the risk from surface transmission is very low, increased cleaning at the worksite has also been implemented and continues today.

Ventilation – We’ve learned that the virus doesn’t circulate as well in fresh, outdoor air so we increased air circulation on our trains, buses and office environments. According to engineering and public health experts, increasing the amount of clean or outdoor air delivered to any area per hour reduces the risk of transmission of viruses through the air and therefore lowers the risk of contracting the disease. So breathe a sigh of relief.

These efforts are part of the over 40 safety measures put in place to ensure both staff and customers remain safe.

So, yes, thanks for asking…it is safe to ride public transit again.

Editor’s note – Want to follow Anne Marie on Twitter? Look for @MetrolinxSpox

Story by Anne Marie Aikins, Metrolinx head of media and public relations