MetroAccess Driver Has TB, 762 Riders Told

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 6, 2008

A driver for Metro's van service for the elderly and disabled has tuberculosis, and as many as 762 riders might have been exposed to the disease, Metro officials said yesterday.

The D.C. Department of Health, which learned of the diagnosis because of mandatory reporting laws, notified the transit agency of the infection Oct. 29, as soon as TB was confirmed. Metro officials said they took the MetroAccess driver, whom they would not name, off the road Oct. 14, when they suspected that he might have the disease.

TB is contagious and can cause severe respiratory illness and even death if left untreated.

About 100 of the passengers are believed to have been exposed long enough to be at risk of contracting the disease. Health departments in Maryland, the District and Virginia are "aggressively" following up with those people, said Shannon Hader, the D.C. Health Department official in charge of the city's tuberculosis program. Even in those cases, she said, the risk that they contracted the disease, even for those who are frail or elderly, is low.

"TB is a disease that we take absolutely seriously," said Hader, noting that there are between 50 and 60 active cases of tuberculosis a year in the District. "It's an important public health problem, and we treat it with all seriousness and make sure our protocol is very thorough."

Metro was able to identify the 762 passengers who might have come into contact with the driver because the service typically picks up people at their homes and their addresses are on file, said Angela Gates, a Metro spokeswoman. The agency sent letters to the riders notifying them that the driver was found to have TB and that their contact information was being given to the D.C. Health Department.

Some riders question why it took so long for Metro to alert the affected passengers. D.C. contacted the agency about the driver's illness Oct. 29, but it wasn't until Nov. 19 that Metro sent out the warning letters.

"If Metro had a potential outbreak on Metrorail or Metrobus, what would they do?" asked Margaret Jemmott, 47, an Arlington County resident who takes MetroAccess about twice a week but is not one of the affected riders. "It's not rocket science that you need to notify people of a possible case of TB, in particular when some of the passengers already have compromised immune systems."

Gates said the three-week lapse between learning of the infection and notifying riders occurred because the agency was waiting for guidance from D.C. health officials, who were leading the investigation. But Hader disputed that, saying the delay was more likely due to the time it took for Metro to find all the pertinent names and addresses.

Virginia reported 306 active cases of tuberculosis in 2007, and Maryland reported 253 cases in 2006, the most recent years for which state statistics are available. The disease is transmitted through the air, in coughs and sneezes, for example. But transmission typically occurs through very close and repeated contact, Hader said.

Hader noted that the driver's tuberculosis was "regular, old-fashioned TB," not the drug-resistant type that has been on the rise since the 1990s.

About 20,000 people in the District, Maryland and Virginia use MetroAccess, which provides door-to-door van and car transportation for those who are unable to use regular rail or bus service. The driver is an employee of MV Transportation, a California-based contractor that provides about 880 employees to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for MetroAccess service.

A spokeswoman for MV Transportation said the driver has been an employee since April 2007. Gates said the driver is being treated and is expected to return to work.

"We're concerned about the health of all of our employees," Gates said. "He is getting the proper medical treatment, and the District Department of Health has been working hand in hand with us to notify the affected individuals."

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