Transit union renews call for Winnipeg bus drivers to be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines as variants spread

The union representing transit workers in Winnipeg is again calling on the province to prioritize its members for COVID-19 vaccines, as more cases of highly contagious coronavirus variants continue popping up in the city.

Outbreak of more-contagious variant could hit transit system hard: ATU president

With most of Manitoba's coronavirus variant cases appearing in Winnipeg, transit union president Romeo Ignacio said it's time to reconsider adding drivers to the list of people eligible for vaccines. (Dana Hatherly/CBC)

The union representing transit workers in Winnipeg is again calling for its members to be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines, as more cases of highly contagious coronavirus variants continue popping up in the city.

"We shouldn't be complacent," said Romeo Ignacio, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505. "Our members are exposed to the public daily."

As of Sunday, Manitoba had identified 123 cases of the coronavirus variants first identified in the U.K. and South Africa. All but five were in the Winnipeg health region.

The union first asked for its bus drivers to be prioritized for immunization in mid-January, when Manitoba's vaccine rollout was just getting started. 

With variants appearing to be on the rise in Winnipeg, Ignacio said it's time to reconsider adding transit workers to the list of people eligible for vaccines based on where they work.

He said increased exposures to COVID-19 cases on buses have become a concern for the union.

"We're not asking to be the first in line. We just want to make sure that while we are providing this service … there's some consideration as to the exposures that our workers are going through," Ignacio said.

Union president Romeo Ignacio says he's worried about possible service disruptions if coronavirus variants were to lead to an outbreak among Winnipeg bus drivers. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A provincial spokesperson said Manitoba's vaccine implementation task force continues to expand its eligibility criteria based on the advice of more than 60 medical experts, including doctors, epidemiologists, pharmacists and nurses.

"At this time, age and some underlying medical conditions continue to be the greatest risk factors for serious outcomes from COVID-19," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement on Sunday.

"And while the supply of vaccine is slowly increasing, we must still make very significant and difficult decisions about how to allocate this life-saving intervention."

The spokesperson said the province encourages bus drivers already eligible for vaccination based on age or underlying conditions to get their shots.

Ignacio said the union is worried about how quickly the variants could spread among its members and that spread's potential to disrupt bus service.

And as ridership slowly increases again while the transit system continues operating at reduced capacity, he said he's worried crowded buses could exacerbate the potential for spread.

"We're afraid that an outbreak might come," he said. "We would be better off as a community if we are all protected."

Ignacio also said while Winnipeg Transit installed safety shields on its buses before the pandemic, those are meant to curb altercations between riders and drivers — not protect against virus particles.

He said the union wants shields that would be more effective at protecting its drivers against COVID-19.

A spokesperson for the City of Winnipeg would not comment on what Winnipeg Transit is doing to protect drivers from COVID-19.

In an email on Sunday, the spokesperson said the city hopes vaccines will be rolled out to front-line workers, including bus drivers, once there's more supply.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 has roughly 1,500 members.

That includes about 1,100 bus drivers and hundreds more employees who work for Transit Plus or as mechanics and bus maintenance workers, Ignacio said.

Since November, 15 union members have reported testing positive for COVID-19, he said.

With files from Peggy Lam


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