NEW YORK, N.Y.—New York University’s public-health school announced July 23, that it is beginning a series of studies to evaluate how the COVID-19 virus spread among the city’s transit workers and the effectiveness of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s actions to limit their exposure to the virus.
“This will be the first time outside public-health experts gather information from transit workers about their experiences during the pandemic and put the MTA’s actions under the microscope,” Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Tony Utano said in a statement. “We can’t bring back our fallen heroes. But we can keep working to improve safety on the job, and that’s what this is all about.”
The union, which will work with the NYU School of Global Public Health on coordinating the study, has been consulting with experts from the school for the past few months, Utano said. With subway and bus workers in contact with the public in enclosed and underground spaces, thousands of Local 100 members have been infected with the virus, and more than 90 have died. More than 130 MTA workers have died, overall.
NYU said the project will begin with a pilot study consisting of virtual focus groups, interviews, and an anonymous survey of about 200 transit workers.
The researchers will use that information to evaluate the risks the workers faced during the first months of the pandemic, and the effectiveness of MTA actions such as requiring the use of masks, additional cleaning and disinfecting of buses and trains, employee health screening, and social-distancing measures such as closing off the front section of buses.
Many of those safety efforts, the university noted, came after the virus had become widespread. On March 17, the day Mayor Bill de Blasio’s order limiting bars and restaurants to takeout and delivery went into effect, the city had less than 1,000 confirmed cases of the virus. Ten days later, when the MTA announced it would distribute 75,000 masks to workers, there were more than 25,000. By April 30, when the MTA began shutting down the subways between 1 and 5 a.m. for additional cleaning, there had been more than 160,000 cases and 12,500 deaths.
The researchers will also explore how infections and deaths among workers correlate with pre-existing health conditions, age, and race and ethnicity, as well as how the pandemic may be hurting their mental health.
They also plan to apply for federal grants to enable more extensive studies covering thousands of transit workers later this year.
“Our research aims to identify and better understand the individual and workplace factors that put this essential workforce at risk for COVID-19, in an effort to protect their health and well-being,” lead researcher Robyn Gershon, a clinical professor of epidemiology at NYU School of Global Public Health, said in a statement. “We need to address this important gap in our knowledge about occupational exposure to coronavirus, and use these findings to determine what additional protective measures are needed going forward.”
Gershon, an occupational and environmental health scientist, previously collaborated with TWU Local 100 for a study of hearing loss from transit workers’ exposure to noise on the job. She has also conducted studies on emergency evacuation of high-rise buildings (following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center) and psychosocial work stress in law enforcement.
In collaboration with Local 100 and the MTA, the researchers expect to complete a report with guidelines and recommendations sometime in the fall.