NJ Transit bus union takes coronavirus testing into its own hands, sets up site for members
It was the beginning of April when Orlando Riley heard through word-of-mouth about a lab doing coronavirus testing in Paterson.
With dozens and dozens of his members getting sick, Riley, head of the state Amalgamated Transit Union that represents several hundred bus operators, got in touch.
Two weeks later he had secured some 250 nasal swab tests. And on Saturday, there was a site set up in Irvington to conduct seven hours of drive-thru testing for any union member, symptomatic or not.
As their ranks have fallen ill or died, frontline NJ Transit employees are keeping buses and trains operating — mainly for essential workers — while having inconsistent access early on to personal protective equipment like masks and sanitizers. Of the six agency employees who have died from complications related to coronavirus, two were bus operators and one a train conductor.
"We have had members recently pass away and some are extremely ill and we’re out there with the public every day, people are scared, their anxiety level is high," Riley said.
He added that some garages have become hotspots for the virus after asymptomatic people come to work, making this kind of testing crucial.
After spending some time at the testing site in Irvington on Saturday, Riley said people were happy to be there.
"They were grateful and people want to find out, they want answers. It was just a good opportunity for us to get some of those answers for our members. Again, they’re driving every day and they want to feel safe and make sure they’re not bringing the virus home to their families," Riley said.
Cars were wrapped around the block as members waited for a staff of about nine medical professionals to approach their car windows. Riley declined to say the name of the lab they partnered with or any of the financial details about the testing.
Any union member who showed up to the site with their ID and medical card — whether they have coronavirus symptoms or not — got tested.
Darrell Lampley, acting president of the local 819 ATU chapter and a former Marine, kept the line of cars moving, answering questions, and maintained efficiency and order as he oversaw the testing site.
"The doctors are out there, the staff is out here making sure that those who test positive get the help they need and don’t contribute to spreading. That's what‘s good, everyone is coming together, as one, like it should be," said Lampley, whose local chapter headquarters hosted the testing site.
"Even though it’s a dark cloud, there is a silver lining today."
There has been a recent push to secure testing for some vulnerable populations, including those incarcerated, others in homes for the developmentally disabled and long-term care facilities. But there has been little public discussion from the governor or his administration about testing transit workers.
Some 256 NJ Transit employees have tested positive for coronavirus, and more than 1,000 are quarantined because of possible exposure or caring for a loved one.
Tests at sites around the state have only been administered to those who have symptoms, and in some cases, testing of asymptomatic individuals ceased because a federal waiver was needed first in those cases. However, a veterans home in Paramus tested all of its entire residents recently, with two other veterans facilities expected to follow suit. The governor's chief counsel Matt Platkin also received "a pass," Gov. Phil Murphy said, so he could be tested despite being asymptomatic.
Murphy wants to scale up the state's testing capabilities, he has said in recent press conferences, but few details are known about the testing and staffing strategy to accomplish that.
Riley said he hopes to expand their testing to the South Jersey division and eventually work with NJ Transit to do more company-wide testing for the agency, which employs nearly 12,000 people.
"NJ TRANSIT has implemented numerous measures to protect our employees and others are continuing to be considered, such as dedicated testing sites. We will continue to take any and all measures to ensure the health and safety of our employees, which has been our highest priority since the onset of this pandemic," agency spokesman Jim Smith said in a statement.
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