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Metro loses first employee to covid-19

Joseph Reid worked as a manager in the Rail Operations Control Center.

A passenger at the Metro Center station on Thursday in D.C. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

A Metro employee has died of covid-19 — the transit agency’s first death more than five months into the pandemic.

Metro said the employee died sometime late Thursday or early Friday and worked as a manager in the Rail Operations Control Center before falling ill several weeks ago.

While many transit agencies across the United States have experienced several deaths due to the virus, Metro, the nation’s third-largest transit system, with more than 12,000 employees, had been fortunate.

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Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents most Metro employees, identified the worker as Joseph Reid. The union said Reid began his career with Metro as a bus operator before moving into rail operations. When he was promoted to supervisor, Reid demonstrated his loyalty and solidarity to his colleagues by continuing to pay his union dues, the union said.

“Joseph is a reminder of the continued dangers of covid-19 and the outsized impact it has had upon the working people of this country,” the union said in a statement. “Transit workers are just one part of the essential workforce that have kept this region moving even during a global pandemic.”

In a statement dated Friday, Metro said, “Overnight we learned that we lost a friend and colleague.”

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“This is the first known Covid-related death in the Metro family, an employee who worked as a manager in the Rail Operations Control Center prior to becoming ill several weeks ago,” the statement said. “We extend our deepest condolences to our fallen colleague’s family and friends, and ask that you keep them in your thoughts.”

Transit agencies across the country have mourned fallen colleagues, who have kept public transportation systems running so essential workers such as doctors, grocery workers and first responders could get to their jobs. New York has been hit hardest, with more than 130 Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers having died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The transit union there is creating a mural to commemorate workers who have died.

More than 300 Metro employees have tested positive for the coronavirus since March; 285 have returned to work and one remains hospitalized. Nearly 40 Metro employees remain out of work, fighting or recovering from the virus, according to the transit agency.

A coronavirus dashboard on Metro’s website created to inform the public and employees of the virus’s impact on employees, ridership and service for the first time now includes the category of “lives lost.”

Reid had worked for Metro for eight years. He last worked a shift one month ago and had been hospitalized for most of the time since, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.

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The transit agency is offering grief counselors to any employees seeking support, the organization said.

In an internal memo to employees obtained by The Washington Post, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld told employees, “This is a message I hoped I would not have to send.”

Wiedefeld said the employee had been hospitalized for several weeks and that he had reached out to the man’s wife to offer his condolences and full support.

“Overnight we lost a valued member of the Metro family who succumbed to Covid-19,” Wiedefeld said in the memo. “These are not numbers, but family members and fellow transit professionals who, like you, serve this region by making essential travel possible.

“Please support each other and our community by always wearing face coverings while on Metro property and following the CDC guidelines at home, work, and in the community to keep safe.”

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Metro only this week had begun resuming nearly normal service for the first time since severely cutting it in mid-March to limit employee exposure to the public. The agency also openly discouraged riders from using transit except for essential needs as it tried to limit the conditions on trains and buses that might contribute to spread of the virus.

ATU, North America’s largest transportation union, said 83 of its members have died since March. Union officials continue to push for better personal protective equipment for transit workers, while transit agencies have taken unprecedented steps to keep employees safe. Many, including Metro, are foregoing fare collection and requiring riders to board through the rear doors. The change allows the first few rows to be sealed off from passengers and isolate the driver from riders to lower their risk of exposure to the virus. Transit officials also have given bus operators the right to skip pickups at bus stops if their buses are too full, and many agencies have made wearing masks mandatory on board.

At one point, Metro had closed nearly 30 of its 91 stations, several entrances to operating stations and more than 200 bus routes. Ridership correspondingly dropped to record lows that have remained consistent since mid-March.

Last week, Metro began a plan to restore service to nearly normal levels after it began seeing an increase in riders, many of whom were federal workers returning to their offices. Metrorail service hours were expanded, and the number of operating trains more than doubled. Metrobus is scheduled to begin expanded service on more than 170 routes Sunday.

On Thursday, Metro reported an increase of 13,000 passenger rail trips compared with the same day last week. On Wednesday, the average number of new coronavirus cases across the greater Washington region dropped to its lowest level in a month.