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Honolulu city bus driver worked 5 days with COVID-19 symptoms before testing positive

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Roger Morton, president and general manager of Oahu Transit Services Inc., answered questions Sunday about the confirmed COVID-19 case involving a bus operator.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Roger Morton, president and general manager of Oahu Transit Services Inc., answered questions Sunday about the confirmed COVID-19 case involving a bus operator.

A Honolulu bus operator, who has tested positive for COVID-19, continued to drive buses for about a week with symptoms of an illness before being tested for the virus Friday, a bus official said Sunday.

The operator drove at least one route a day from Monday through Friday out of the Pearl City division.

City officials said at a news conference Sunday afternoon that they learned about the driver’s positive test result at about 8 p.m. Saturday.

“This was not to be totally unexpected,” said Roger Morton, president and general manager of Oahu Transit Services, which operates TheBus and TheHandi-Van.

Also Sunday, the state announced 27 new daily cases of the new coronavirus, the most cases reported in one day since June 19, when there were also 27 new cases. At the peak of the outbreak in Hawaii, 34 new cases were reported in one day in early April.

A new cluster on Oahu resulted in 17 new cases Sunday — all associated with people attending a funeral, state officials said. Intensive contact tracing identified possibly infected individuals who were then tested, found to be infected and placed in isolation.

Contact tracing also identified six cases in Leeward Oahu that were associated with known clusters. Two new cases on Kauai were connected to a known cluster reported last week, and one case on Hawaii island was connected to travel in Georgia. The state also reported one new case on Maui.

The bus driver who tested positive last week and is now in quarantine was the second city bus driver to test positive for the virus and the first to drive a bus while apparently ill. In March another driver returned sick from the mainland and tested positive for the virus, but never drove a bus while ill. That person has recovered and is back at work, Morton said.

He said upon learning of the positive case, OTS put into effect a previously designed response plan to find out which employees had direct, prolonged contact with the infected operator and to sanitize the facilities where the infected driver had been.

Officials said two other employees were identified as direct contacts with the infected driver and were in isolation. All bus drivers were also notified by email about the positive result. The city provided information to the state Health Department so the state could follow up with contact tracing of additional close contacts of the driver.

State Epidemiologist Sarah Park urged the public Sunday to continue using safety measures to prevent the disease’s spread, such as physical distancing, wearing of masks and frequent hand washing, especially when with others outside of the daily household.

“It’s important to celebrate life and share life events, whether it’s remembering someone who has passed or gathering with others in practicing a common faith,” Park said in a statement. “And doing so safely will protect our loved ones and the entire community.”

Also Sunday, the Hawaii Tourism Authority reported 481 visitors arrived in the islands Saturday, about 25% of that day’s 1,930 incoming passengers. The arrivals included 683 returning residents, 231 crew members, 170 military members, 93 people relocating to Hawaii, 62 travelers exempt from the state’s mandatory two-week quarantine for trans-Pacific travelers, and 210 people stopping in Hawaii before continuing on to another destination.

Sunday afternoon, several bus riders said that they felt TheBus was doing what it could to keep riders safe.

“You never know,” said Chinatown resident Kay Nakagawa, who got off a bus near Punchbowl Street wearing a mask, visor and sunglasses.

She said TheBus is her regular transportation and that she will get off a bus to take the next one if she feels it is too crowded.

“You just got to be careful, that’s all,” she said.

Jenny Lemaota, the deputy general manager at OTS, said at a news conference that the infected operator started to feel sick Monday and was tested Friday.

She said if an operator is feeling sick, they are required to immediately notify human resources, which will give him or her guidance on what to do next.

Morton said drivers are on the road about eight hours a day and are required to wear a mask when people are getting on or off the bus, but can remove it between stops.

He said the agency has asked drivers to monitor their own health and take their own temperatures but is considering random temperature screenings of its roughly 1,000 bus drivers and 330 TheHandi-Van drivers to encourage them to comply with self-monitoring requirements.

In addition, the agency is looking at testing of all bus drivers.

Jon Nouchi, deputy director of the city Department of Transportation Services, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s transmission criteria for the virus describe a sustained interaction between people for the virus to be spread. He said the interaction on the bus between driver and passenger is much shorter.

“We’re confident that protections that we put into place and some of the procedures we put into place will help keep the workforce and our other passengers as safe as possible,” Nouchi said. “We want to do everything to the maximum extent we can to protect both our workforce and our passengers.”

Morton said TheBus has taken measures to keep the public safe during the pandemic, such as installing plastic curtains to separate bus operators from riders, taking out of service the front seats near the driver on buses with high floors, and installing a new line to keep passengers away from drivers.

He said the agency has been working hard to keep buses sanitized.

“We have an army of our employees that are wiping down all touch surfaces on all buses every day,” he said. In addition, a contractor comes in nightly to deploy a fog that sanitizes surfaces that cannot be reached by hand within the buses.

He said masks are still mandatory while riding on city buses and that riders should be eliminating unnecessary travel.

“Public transit at this time is a service that is meant for essential trips only,” Morton said. “We don’t want anyone riding the bus if they are sick. If you’re sick, stay home.”

He said the agency has been encouraging physical distancing for riders with signs and audio messages, and passengers have largely been compliant. The nonprofit also added buses to busy routes to create more space inside for riders.

He said ridership has been increasing since the pandemic first arrived in Hawaii in March. About that time, ridership dropped to about 58,000 daily riders, but it recently has came back to about 82,000 daily riders, or about 40% of the 200,000 pre-pandemic daily riders of TheBus.

“We do expect that this ridership will continue to increase,” Morton said. “We will continue to monitor our buses and do what we can to provide for proper social distancing guidelines.”

DRIVER’S ROUTES

These are the bus routes driven by the infected driver last week:

>> No. 9: Pearl Harbor-Kaimuki

>> No. 40: Makaha-Honolulu

>> No. 42: Ewa Beach-Waikiki

>> No. 88-A: North Shore Express

>> No. 501: Mililani Mauka

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