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17 RFTA employees reported symptoms consistent with coronavirus, 1 hospitalized

RFTA lead mechanic Will Fabela, right, and Patricia Rosales Trigo disinfect a bus at the Aspen Maintenance Facility on Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

An off-duty bus driver for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority was taken by ambulance from his home at Burlingame to the hospital Sunday, CEO Dan Blankenship confirmed Monday.

The driver with the public bus agency had been staying home due to illness and is one of 17 RFTA employees who have recently reported symptoms consistent with COVID-19, Blankenship said. At least two employees have been tested though the results aren’t known yet. The driver who was treated was moved from Aspen Valley Hospital to another facility Sunday, Blankenship said, but that’s the limit of what RFTA officials know about his medical condition.

“We can’t presume that he had COVID-19,” said Paul Taddune, RFTA’s legal counsel.

The man worked until March 18, then had a couple of days off, Blankenship said. He stayed away from work after he developed possible virus-like symptoms.

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A roommate of the man who was hospitalized also had complained of possible coronavirus symptoms this month and has been staying in the residence and away from work, according to Blankenship. RFTA’s human resources department was checking on all 17 people who have reported symptoms.

On Sunday, the man who was ultimately hospitalized provided answers to the human resources representative that led her to believe his condition was worsening. RFTA officials reported concerns to Aspen Valley Hospital and were advised they should contact 911 if they felt he required treatment. After conferring, the call was made, Blankenship said.

“His condition was serious enough to be transported,” he said.

Of the 17 people who have reported symptoms consistent with the virus, nine are bus drivers, he said.

There are another 20 RFTA employees who are in self-isolation after reporting coming into close contact with people who have or may have contracted the virus, though they themselves aren’t reporting symptoms, Blankenship said. The contact wasn’t at work in all cases.

Another 10 RFTA employees have identified themselves as high risk of harm from the virus and are staying away from work as a precaution, according to Blankenship.

“We’re doing our best to monitor and track,” Blankenship said. All information has been provided to the public health departments in Pitkin and Garfield counties.

RFTA has about 365 employees. The number reporting symptoms of coronavirus at this point is less than 5%. Any employees who can work from home are doing so.

RFTA made several moves earlier this month to try to ensure the health and safety of drivers and passengers after conferring with the union representing the drivers. Every bus used for operations is being disinfected daily with a virucide, rows of seats were taped off to create more social distance between passengers, the lobby at RFTA’s Rubey Park station was closed and facilities throughout the bus system have received a vigorous cleansing.

In addition, the RFTA board of directors approved a proposal March 12 to allow workers to borrow ahead for sick time needed and sick time benefits were extended to seasonal workers, so they could stay home if sick rather than plow ahead to ensure a paycheck.

On buses, contact is limited between drivers and passengers. Drivers no longer handle bus passes or cash although passengers come in close proximity while providing their fare.

RFTA hasn’t identified what days the potentially ill drivers were handling which buses on specific routes.

“It’s hard for us to know exactly what to tell people,” Blankenship said.

RFTA has decreased its service in two phases, thus the need for personnel, as the coronavirus crisis has become more severe. It is currently using 98 drivers per day to cover its routes. More drivers than 98 are needed to cover all shifts through seven days in the week, noted Kent Blackmer, co-director of operations.

Blankenship said RFTA will decide probably Thursday whether to go to “bare bones” service. That would reduce the daily demand for drivers to about 48.

Ridership has dropped about 80% system-wide from March 4 to 21, according to Blankenship. Social distancing has not been a problem on recent bus rides.

State officials have deemed public transportation an essential service, so a complete closure seems unlikely. For example, the bus might be the only way for some people to go to the grocery store, he noted.

“If we weren’t an essential service, we would probably scale way, way back,” Blankenship said.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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