Commonsense practices like covering one’s mouth when sneezing are the best means to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus in the public transit system, according to the director of public-health emergency of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
Dr. Bonnie Henry made this point as she noted that TransLink doesn’t need to implement extraordinary measures like providing masks to bus operators.
The UBC assistant professor of health care and epidemiology also indicated that health authorities aren’t thinking about making any recommendation to ground public transport to stop the proliferation of the disease.
“That’s not something that we would consider for this,” Henry told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “The downside impact of that compared to what little benefit it might do in the grand scheme of things, it’s just not worth it. It’s not going to stop the transfer of influenza. It’s transmitted between people, in families, in schools, in workplaces, all over the place. So we’ve looked at whether there would be any benefit from stopping public transport, and there really isn’t compared to the downside impact.”
Based on a BCCDC update issued on October 13, there have been 78 hospitalizations and seven confirmed deaths in the province due to the influenza virus. Henry said that there’s no evidence showing that bus drivers wearing a mask will make any difference, hence the centre isn’t suggesting such a measure.
Don MacLeod is the president of the Canadian Auto Workers Local 111, the union that represents about 3,500 bus drivers of the Coast Mountain Bus Company, a TransLink subsidiary. Although noting that health authorities have advised that the wearing of masks by drivers isn’t necessary, MacLeod also told the Straight: “Whether that will turn out to be the right decision down the road, I don’t know.”
The union president pointed out that although the public bus system is currently running without a hitch, “I’m sure you can appreciate it if this becomes a full-blown epidemic out there, obviously our members”¦have the potential of running into the virus because of the job that we do.
“I don’t think anybody has a clear handle on what could happen,” MacLeod added.
For her part, Henry said that TransLink has a regular program of cleaning its buses and trains, and the BCCDC is encouraging the transport body to do just that.
“You know you can’t keep public transport like a bus free of viruses at any time,” Henry said. “So it’s really important for people, when they’re travelling on public transport or any other place where people commonly touch, to clean their hands regularly and to wash them definitely before they eat, and before they touch their face or rub their eyes.”
Two million doses of swine-flu vaccine have been shipped to provinces and territories, federal health minister Leona Aglukkaq announced on October 19. But these won’t be administered until Health Canada approves the release of the vaccine.
In an October 16 update released by the Public Health Agency of Canada, from October 4 to 10 the federal body reported that influenza activity increased for the fourth consecutive week nationwide. “B.C. had particularly high influenza activity this week with more than 30 percent of positive influenza tests and 17 influenza outbreaks,” the agency stated.
On a national level, 1,541 hospitalized cases, including 299 admissions to intensive-care units, and 80 deaths have been recorded since the influenza outbreak began. Aboriginal people account for 18 percent of hospitalizations and 13 percent of deaths even though they are only three percent of the national population.
TransLink spokesperson Drew Snider acknowledged that the public transportation body has heard suggestions to sanitize seats and poles in buses and SkyTrain cars more often.
However, “that’s only effective until the next contagious person comes along and that’s wiped out,” Snider told the Straight in a phone interview.
“Essentially, we’re just helping to try to get the word out and telling our employees that for heaven sakes, if you’re feeling sick, stay home,” Snider also said. “If you’re sneezing, if somebody in your family is sick, stay home until you’re absolutely sure yourself that you’re not spreading it to other people at work or to others in buses and the SkyTrain.”
In early October, a woman in Victoria was asked by a B.C. Transit driver to get off the bus after her coughing caught the attention of an elderly passenger. Snider explained that making such a move is a tough call on the part of drivers. He added that transit operators are expected to use common sense and discretion, and they can call superiors to help assess the situation.
Snider was asked what TransLink has planned to keep transit going in case H1N1 downs many of its bus operators. “That has not even come up,” Snider responded. “Even when the pandemic was first declared, that wasn’t even considered as a possibility. Certainly, we have emergency measures for anything like this that we can put into practice quite quickly, like our emergency measures include what happens if there is a pandemic. What exactly that is, I can’t tell you right now.”