A Winnipeg Transit Bus. (Source: CTV News Winnipeg)

The union representing Winnipeg’s transit drivers said a recent incident highlights the need for its members have a higher grade of PPE provided and for them to move higher in the COVID-19 vaccine queue.

James Van Gerwen is the executive vice-president of the Amalgamated Transit Union 1505. He told CTV News of an incident on a Winnipeg bus on Jan. 6, in which a driver picked up a passenger who claimed to be COVID-19 positive. The passenger advised the driver he was on his way to the emergency room at the Health Sciences Centre.

Gerwen said the driver noticed the passenger was coughing profusely. When the man boarded, the driver conveyed his concerns to the transit control centre.

“They basically said continue on your way, you have your mask, you have your shields, so there’s no concern for you," said Gerwen. 

Gerwen said the advice from management did not exactly reduce the driver’s fears of becoming infected. 

“He was transporting somebody who self-declared that he had COVID-19 and at that point of the game, he was very concerned about bringing it home to his family.”

The driver stated other passengers were also concerned and many moved to the back of the bus to distance themselves. 

Gerwen said Winnipeg Transit needs to provide N95 masks to drivers rather than having them rely on cloth masks for protection. He said drivers have been asking for clearer protocols for dealing with passengers who self-declare as COVID-19 positive and for clearer rules regarding bus capacity in the era of physical distancing. 

The union is also asking for drivers to move higher on the vaccine list given their exposure to the public. 

“We believe we should be in line with the police and other first responders in the ability to get the vaccination ahead of the general public,” the union said. “We are the ones that are moving the city and believe we should be protected.” 

Gerwen said Mayor Brian Bowman has provided the union with a letter expressing support for prioritizing vaccine for transit drivers. He said so far, there is no indication Bowman has asked Premier Brian Pallister to expand eligibility to transit workers.