Need a COVID-19 vaccine? Visit your local transportation center

When Foothill Transit officials opened a new three-level bus depot and $ 24 million new garage last March in Covina, Calif., They believed it would be heavily used.

But about two weeks later, the pandemic struck and ridership plummeted. This left the transit agency with a lot of empty space and no one to fill it for months.

In March, the site was back on its feet, as it were. Working with the city and the Albertsons grocery chain, the transit agency turned the ground floor of its parking lot into a COVID-19 vaccination site. The transit center held two clinics on Saturday and has at least five more planned. Almost 2,500 people have been vaccinated.

“We wanted to have a place where passengers could access the immunizations,” said Doran Barnes, executive director of Foothill Transit. “We also wanted a location that would support the community where this transit hub is located. “

Across the country, transit agencies are involved in vaccination efforts. Many offer people free trips to immunization sites via bus, train, or streetcar routes, or use their paratransit fleets for home pickup. And some, like Foothill Transit, are turning their facilities into temporary vaccination clinics.

“This is a situation where all stakeholders are on the bridge,” said Chad Chitwood, spokesperson for the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group. “Public transit finds the best way to help. “

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In the early months of the pandemic, Chitwood said, some transit companies offered trips to food banks or offered buses as Wi-Fi hotspots for students who did not have internet access. In recent months, they have turned to vaccines.

According to Stewart Mader, an independent transportation policy advocate based in Hoboken, New Jersey, at least 451 transit providers in 45 states and the District of Columbia offer free transportation to vaccination sites. He launched a campaign called Vaxtransit encourage agencies to use their buses and trains to help provide people without transportation with access to vaccines.

This is exactly what large and medium-sized transit agencies do, as do small rural services operated by municipal and county governments.

Since January, for example, VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio has offered free rides to anyone needing to go to a vaccination site, said Jon Gary Herrera, the agency’s senior vice president. To date, more than 1,900 passengers have used its buses or paratransit service.

“It’s the right thing for our community,” Herrera said. “And it also helps us to recover. “

When Mader launched his Vax Transit initiative in early January, he was only aware of 15 transit agencies in nine states offering free rides for vaccines, he said. These numbers have increased as more vaccines have become available for more groups.

“The faster we get people vaccinated, the faster we can get back to normal,” said Mader, the former customer advocate for NJ Transit.

For transit agencies, who suffered a devastating loss of runners Since many people telecommute or are afraid to take buses or trains because of COVID-19, free trips for vaccines are also good public relations, Mader said.

“Giving people free access to the vaccine can change their perception of public transit,” he said. “It’s an investment in the future.

State and federal aid

Some states are supporting the vaccine aid efforts of transit agencies.

In North Carolina, the Departments of Transportation and Health and Human Services are distributing approximately $ 2.5 million in COVID-19 funding to transit agencies. The money offsets the operating costs of travel to and from vaccination sites.

In Ohio, the Department of Transportation is providing a total of $ 7 million to all 88 counties for help the most vulnerable populations to vaccination sites. In most counties, the money will go directly to transit agencies. In counties that do not have such services, funding will go to the county health services for purchased transportation.

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The federal government is also helping.

In Prince George County, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a pilot vaccination center in a train station last week. Authorities expect to be able to provide up to 3,000 injections per day as more vaccines become available.

Federal coronavirus relief money is also helping many transit agencies with their immunization programs. The Federal Transit Administration has said that agencies can use it to pay for transportation services to immunization clinics as well as to provide their own facilities as sites.

Creative thinking

Some transit agencies have been creative with the type of spaces they use for immunization clinics.

In Bremerton, Wash., Kitsap Transit converted parking and indoor space into a former linear mall that it used as a park-and-ride site and storage facility.

As of January, Peninsula Community Health Services, a non-profit health agency, used part of the space to run a mass vaccination clinic.

“It was a huge success,” said John Clauson, executive director of Kitsap Transit. “From the start, people there filled the parking lot to get vaccinated. “

As of April 7, Peninsula had given more than 18,000 photos to the site, according to its CEO, Jennifer Kreidler-Moss.

Kitsap Transit, which operates around 200 buses and five ferry lines, also offers free door-to-door rides in paratransit vehicles to anyone who needs transportation to have their picture taken.

In Ohio, the Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority used its new indoor bus garage for a mass vaccination clinic last month. Five hundred people got beatings.

And it’s not just small and medium-sized transport agencies that have launched vaccination efforts at their facilities.

In Georgia, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), the largest transit system in the Southeast, has made a commitment. He partnered with DeKalb County and the County Health Department, which set up a large vaccination site in the parking lot adjacent to MARTA’s Doraville train station in a suburb of Atlanta.

The Doraville site, which opened in mid-February, had administered nearly 13,000 injections as of April 1, according to Eric Nickens, spokesperson for the DeKalb County Board of Health. It operates every day of the week and on Saturday morning.

MARTA has also partnered with Delta Air Lines to provide free shuttle service to the public from its College Park station to a vaccination site at the airline’s Aviation Museum in Fulton County.

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority has partnered with DeKalb County to set up this large vaccination site in a parking lot adjacent to its Doraville, Georgia train station.
DeKalb County Board of Health

And the transport agency plans to expand the vaccination program at its Indian Creek train station, which is in a low-income area, as vaccines become more widely available, said Luz Borrero, executive director. by MARTA.

“We want to make vaccinations more accessible to low-income people,” she said. “This site is particularly important because of this.”

MARTA, which has five rail lines, 110 bus lines, and light rail and paratransit services, serves a population that is, for the most part, “economically disadvantaged,” Borrero said.

“We believe we have a role to play in ensuring that people dependent on public transport can access vaccination sites more easily,” she said.

“Lots of logistics”

At Foothill Transit, which operates 39 bus lines and covers 22 cities in a suburban area of ​​eastern Los Angeles County, agency manager Barnes agrees accessibility is key.

Its Covina Transit Center, an open-air covered parking lot, was designed to allow commuters to drive and take an express bus to Los Angeles. The transit agency also hoped to rent 4,400 square feet of retail space in the center to a restaurant.

COVID-19 has changed all that. The retail space is empty and many commuters have telecommuted. So it made sense to convert part of the garage into a vaccination clinic, Barnes said.

“In our wildest dreams, we never envisioned this facility being used for any type of vaccination activity,” he said.

Transportation officials made the conscious decision not to make the clinic a drive-thru.

“A lot of the vaccination sites in this county are driving,” Barnes said. “We made ours a drop-in location. People can walk in or come by bus or paratransit vehicle. You can get vaccinated and go about your business.

Transit agency coordinates more than 400 volunteers—Including some of his own employees — to perform tasks such as directing people where to park and helping them check in for appointments.

“It’s a huge effort. There’s a lot of logistics to coordinate, ”Barnes said.

His agency hopes to expand clinics to include certain weekdays, he said. Foothill Transit has also been in talks with another health center and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to allow agencies to use the transit center for more clinics.

Another possibility under discussion is to set up a mobile clinic on a transit bus, take it to communities in need and organize small-scale immunization events.

But as with everything else during the pandemic, plans are fluid, Barnes noted.

“I think there are going to be more changes, more pivots as we go along,” he said. “We’ve tried to shift our mission a bit and look at this particular time and hour.”