Ottawa's transit commissioners want this city's vaccination team to consider the essential work done by OC Transpo staff as it rolls out the next COVID-19 immunizations.
OC Transpo has seen a spike in the number of employees testing positive in recent weeks, and drivers have described feeling anxious when passenger wear their masks improperly — or not at all — and when buses on hospital routes are more crowded than they should be.
During an update to transit commission Wednesday, staff said 106 employees of OC Transpo's workforce of 3,000 had tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began. The number of positive cases has climbed by 35 since the last monthly update on March 17.
The commission approved a motion by Coun. Glen Gower, asking Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches to emphasize to the vaccination team the essential role transit employees play during the pandemic.
"They provide the transportation and mobility for other essential workers to actually get to their jobs," said Gower. "I think we need to emphasize and recognize the work that they're doing and the role it plays in our city's ability to function."
The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) has been pushing governments to prioritize transit workers in their vaccination plans, but says it has received little response.
The president of ATU Local 279, which represents most OC Transpo employees, was pleased to see Gower's motion approved.
Our transit workers right now are scared not only for themselves, but for their families as well as the transit riders and essential workers that they transport every day. - Clint Crabtree, ATU Local 279
"It is encouraging to see members of council and the transit commission finally take our demands seriously," said Clint Crabtree. "Our transit workers right now are scared not only for themselves, but for their families as well as the transit riders and essential workers that they transport every day."
John Manconi, the City of Ottawa's general manager of transportation, agreed the matter should be deferred to health experts. Employees want a clarity about when they will get their shot, he said.
Local vaccinations follow Ontario's plan
Etches said she's happy to pass along people's opinions about what workers need, but said the local vaccination campaign is following the province's direction when it comes to the order in which people get their shots.
So far, the focus has been on older residents, but by the end of April, Ottawa expects to move on to essential workers who can't work from home.
The province has divided those workers into two groups, with first priority being those who work in schools, child care and food processing, as well as emergency responders. Transit workers fall into the second group, and should be vaccinated by the end of June.
"I do not see under the provincial framework that I can switch people up between groups one and two, but we're always having conversations with the province about what we see locally," said Etches.
The team would have discretion when it comes to the sequence of vaccinations within that second group, Etches said.
In the meantime, Etches encouraged people who have to work outside their homes to get their vaccine "wherever they can," referring to the pharmacies that now offer vaccines to those born in 1981 and earlier, and to pop-up clinics in high-risk neighbourhoods.
Meanwhile, Manconi said OC Transpo would be setting up tents for mechanics to take breaks and meals outdoors, and had installed heated portable washrooms at some downtown stops because many local businesses are closed.