There Is Little Evidence That Mass Transit Poses a Risk of Coronavirus Outbreaks - E&E News

A major drop in public transit use coincides with concerns about reducing air pollution that can exacerbate lung conditions.

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ben Fried made a difficult decision: He stopped riding New York City’s subway system.

He was not alone. Ridership on the city’s notoriously packed commuter trains dropped 92% in mid-April, when New York emerged as an epicenter of the global health crisis.

For Fried, the decision was especially tough because he serves as communications director for TransitCenter, an advocacy group that touts the environmental benefits of mass transit.

But as the virus spread, those benefits were overshadowed by the risk of contagion in the enclosed spaces of subway cars.

“I think the prevailing attitude then was, ‘If you don’t need to ride, don’t ride,’” Fried recalled in a recent phone interview.

Since those first fateful months, however, Fried has ventured back onto the subway with his wife. And he’s become part of a vocal group of advocates saying the initial fears of mass transit were overblown.

Those advocates say there is scant evidence tying major coronavirus outbreaks to buses and trains. On the contrary, they say, transit can play a crucial role in the pandemic era by reducing air pollution that makes people more susceptible to COVID-19.

Two prominent proponents of this argument are Janette Sadik-Khan, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, and Seth Solomonow, the co-author of “Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution.”

In a recent opinion piece in The Atlantic titled “Fear of Public Transit Got Ahead of the Evidence,” the pair wrote that “many have blamed subways and buses for coronavirus outbreaks, but a growing body of research suggests otherwise.”

The piece noted that epidemiologists use the term “cluster” to describe major coronavirus outbreaks. A cluster is defined as more than three cases that can be traced to a common event or venue, excluding transmission within households.

In Paris, a recent study found that none of the city’s 150 coronavirus clusters from early May to early June originated on the city’s transit systems, Le Parisien newspaper reported.

The study was conducted by researchers at Santé Publique France, the national public health agency. It was published June 4.

“Indeed, on that date no transport clusters were identified,” Marie Delibéros, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an email to E&News.

As of July 15, four transport clusters had been identified in Paris, accounting for roughly 1% of 386 total clusters, Delibéros said.

It’s a similar situation in Japan, where researchers failed to connect a single cluster to the country’s commuter trains, said Hitoshi Oshitani, a virologist and public health expert at Tohoku University.

The vast majority of the clusters were instead traced to gyms, bars, live music venues, karaoke rooms and similar establishments where people come in close contact with one another, Oshitani said in an email to E&E News.

‘REDUCING THE RISK’ The evidence is less robust in the United States, which lags other developed countries in contact tracing and coronavirus testing.

Contact tracing involves determining an infected person’s “close contacts,” which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as “any individual within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.”

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