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Metro, other transit systems on high alert to prevent coronavirus spread

Sick people are urged to avoid using public transit

A worker wipes down the fare gates at Montgomery Street station March 7 in San Francisco. Transit systems across the country have stepped up cleaning protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Justin Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images)

Transit systems around the Washington region — and across the country — are embracing extensive cleaning protocols, dispensing hand sanitizer and equipping bus and train operators with disinfectant wipes to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Some agencies are using bleach to combat the potential spread of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, and performing daily disinfecting routines on buses, trains and stations. They are using social media and alert systems in stations and trains to urge riders to cover their mouths when they cough and avoid public transit if they are sick.

“Stay home if you’re sick. Absolutely,” said Dan Stessel, a spokesman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. “But not only that, if you’re going to a medical appointment and you think you’ve been exposed [to the coronavirus], do not take public transit.”

The message from Metro echoes that of other systems pleading with commuters to do their part to keep the virus from spreading on the nation’s buses and trains. So far, there has been no evidence of transmission on the public transit systems in the nation’s capital.

Since the first covid-19 cases were confirmed in the region over the weekend, Metro and other systems have stepped up their coronavirus response. Metro moved to a heightened phase, providing hand sanitizer to workers who do not have access to restrooms and increasing communication about the crisis among riders and employees.

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On Monday afternoon, the transit agency started using its electronic screens at stations to send messages to riders that read: “Keep calm and wash your hands.” Metro began using disinfectants recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to scour all equipment in the system more than a week ago, but cleaning can only do so much, officials said.

“If we clean a surface at 9 a.m. and at 9:05 someone comes along and coughs in their hand and touches the surface and then at 9:06 you touch it — all the cleaning in the world won’t have done any good,” Stessel said.

“That’s why we really just want all of our customers and all of our employees to recognize that the most effective step to prevent the disease from spreading and to stay healthy are common-sense” personal hygiene steps they can take, Stessel said. He cited recommendations from the CDC that call for people to wash their hands frequently with soap and water, refrain from touching their faces and avoid contact with sick people.

People should wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol after completing a trip on public transit, according to experts.

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Transit officials say they have contingency plans for multiple outbreak scenarios, which include the possibility of shutdowns and ridership declines. Several systems said they were fielding calls from riders concerned about the coronavirus, while reassuring commuters that public transit remains a safe option.

Most agencies said the coronavirus does not appear to be affecting ridership so far, though that may change if workers are urged to stay home. In Washington, many federal and private-sector employers have teleworking policies in place.

On Monday, some Metro trains appeared less crowded than usual, some riders were hesitant to grab on to the handrails and a few were spotted wearing face masks or latex gloves.

Transportation officials in Washington region said they continue to monitor the coronavirus situation and are working with local authorities to ensure they are following the best recommendations by health experts.

MDOT MTA has proactively initiated an enhanced daily wipe-down of bus, rail, and paratransit vehicles to include disinfecting areas with high passenger touchpoints,” said Paul Shepard, a spokesman for the Maryland Transit Administration, which operates MARC commuter trains and MTA buses. Shepard said the agency will make additional adjustments to cleaning schedules based on guidance from the state health department and the CDC.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said all events with more than 250 people in attendance must be postponed or canceled. (Video: Mayor Muriel E. Bowser)

Virginia Railway Express has also stepped up daily cleaning of its trains, paying close attention to common areas such as handrails, armrests and seat backs, officials said.

“Our restrooms are thoroughly disinfected and restocked with supplies, like hand soap,” VRE spokeswoman Karen Finucan Clarkson said. “Given that this is an evolving situation, we are monitoring advice from federal and state health agencies and are prepared to adjust if indicated, as protecting the health and safety of our passengers and crews is paramount.”

Officials the three airports in the Washington region also said they are monitoring the outbreak and adhering to recommendations from local and federal authorities. No information was provided on whether fewer passengers are traveling through the airports.

A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Reagan National and Dulles International airports, said the airports are sharing with employees important information provided by the CDC about the virus and following the CDC’s recommendations on cleaning protocols.

Jonathan Dean, a spokesman at BWI, said airport staffers have increased cleaning of surfaces commonly touched by travelers in recent week. The airport doesn’t have any airlines from countries that have experienced major outbreaks of covid-19, he said.

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Metro said its MetroAccess fleet was thoroughly cleaned over the weekend after news broke that a person with covid-19 traveled to a senior community in Rockville that is routinely serviced by the paratransit service.

Stessel said the agency will continue the daily, enhanced cleaning of the vans that transport people with disabilities and the elderly in the region. He added that there is no evidence that anyone exposed to the virus at the Rockville senior community traveled on one of its vans.

In a memo to workers Friday afternoon, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld called the news about positive covid-19 cases in Maryland “concerning” but reassured staff that Metro was “taking appropriate precautions to protect the health and well-being of our employees and customers” and working on contingency plans should it need to escalate its response.

“As with any flu-like illness, the best way to prevent the spread of this illness is personal hygiene,” Wiedefeld said. “Meanwhile, rest assured that Metro is absolutely focused on decisions about service schedules and policies that make the health and safety of our employees and customers our priority. … I will not hesitate to direct additional steps to keep you — and our customers — safe, if warranted by conditions or guidance from public health experts.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.

New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

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