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Transit agencies brace for vaccination push amid murky guidance

As Reported by Chris Teale for Smart Cities Dive

New York’s transit stations will glow this week with the memory of 136 passed Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) workers who lost their lives to the COVID-19 virus. “Travels Far,” an eight-minute video memorializing the MTA workers, friends and colleagues, will play on digital screens across more than 100 stations through Feb. 7.

“Through stations and years, through the veined chambers of a stranger’s heart — what you gave travels far,” wrote former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith for the memorial.

MTA is one of countless transit agencies that have suffered losses — of revenues, of ridership, of employees and friends — as transit services continue amid the pandemic.

These workers are showing renewed hope as the authority rapidly vaccinates its workers, yet MTA’s pace of inoculation is not the norm at other agencies. While transit workers are commonly considered “essential” in most states, agencies are struggling to secure vaccinations amid scarce supply and wavering guidance.

States’ tiers and rollout
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) identified transit as one of 16 “critical infrastructure sectors” that should receive priority access to the vaccination. Per this guidance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended public transit workers receive their vaccinations in Phase 1b alongside other essential workers.

Union leaders have echoed this guidance by noting the vital role transportation workers have played during the pandemic.

“Transit operators and other transportation workers have been essential personnel to keep us afloat and we’re going to continue to do that,” said Greg Regan, secretary-treasurer at Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD). “[When] you’re looking at essential workers and who needs to be vaccinated to help us see out of this, transportation workers need to be right there in Phase 1b because they’re going to be helping to distribute the vaccine and make sure that everybody else is able to get it.”

Inoculation plans vary state, however. While many follow the CDC guidelines, others have charted their own course — or have stayed tight-lipped on vaccination plans altogether.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom is facing criticism for a recent change to his vaccination plan that will replace essential worker priority with age-based priority. This decision prompted a letter from the California Transit Association (CTA) urging Newsom’s reconsideration on the matter.

“[O]ur frontline workers, who cannot work from home, are interacting daily with the very people the state has elevated for prioritization in its new plan,” CTA Executive Director Michael Pimentel wrote in the letter. “[T]ransit agencies are providing services that undeniably align with the services provided by the few sectors that would still benefit from the limited sector-based distribution under the new plan.”

Meanwhile, states including Massachusetts and Nevada are taking extra steps to increase vaccine access in the sector by offering inoculations to ride-hailing drivers alongside public transit workers.

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