Metro worker who warned of danger recovering from COVID-19

KING COUNTY, Wash. — In early April, a longtime King County Metro employee shared concerns with KIRO 7 that he would contract the coronavirus while on the job.

Rod Burke, a line supervisor with the transit service, said King County Metro was not doing enough to protect bus drivers and supervisors.

Just days after talking with KIRO 7, the line supervisor was diagnosed with COVID-19.

“I felt like I was in hell,” Burke said Wednesday during a Skype interview from his home. He said he remembers thinking, “I’m going to die here.”

Burke spent eight days in a Seattle hospital’s ICU. “It was the most miserable experience I’ve ever had,” he said.

Social distancing has been ordered on transit buses, but Burke said, behind the scenes, employees have been in very tight quarters.

In the April interview with KIRO 7, Burke said he felt as if Metro was “playing COVID roulette” with workers’ lives.

Since then, a Metro driver based in Bellevue has died. Burke said he believes he nearly died himself.

“At one point, I had this visualization of standing on the edge of an abyss and I had to make a decision, " he recalled. "Was I going to follow my father? Was this it for me? I was in agony.”

Burke’s father died just days before Burke began showing symptoms. “Public Health called me just yesterday to say that, after he had died, they tested him for COVID and he was positive,” Burke told KIRO 7. “He showed no symptoms.”

It’s unknown if Burke contracted COVID-19 from his dad, if his dad got it from him, or if he picked up the virus at work. He recalls using “an open computer keyboard,” in a Metro employee room that “wasn’t sanitized. There were no wipes to wipe things down.”

There’s no way to know for certain where Burke contracted the virus but he said, “my first symptoms showed about 13 days after my last day at work,” after which he said he isolated at home.

His wife, Cathie Bellipanie, is now COVID-19 positive.

Burke maintains that King County could better protect employees by allowing more workers to stay home. This is possible because fewer routes are being serviced. He also said enforcing mask-only regulations system-wide, and installing shields at dispatch centers and on buses would be helpful.

“The fact that we still don’t have sneeze screens, and we don’t have protection on the bus, it’s mind-boggling,” Burke said. He speculated King County Metro is “afraid to put a barrier up to protect them because it might look like it’s unsafe to ride a bus.”

When asked to comment on Burke’s claims, Jeff Switzer, a spokesman for King County Metro, sent the following email:

We’re happy and relieved that Rod is out of the hospital. We send our best wishes for his continued recovery.

Our frontline employees are stepping forward to serve the community while others stay home. The health of our employees and riders is always our first priority and we’re committed to continuously improving safety within workspaces and on transit while supporting essential trips.

Our dispatch centers—like all our workplaces—are disinfected twice daily. We provide sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer at our bases and worksites. Earlier this week, we made the decision to install protective dispatch windows at all seven bases. These window barriers will be similar to those at grocery stores and will help protect dispatchers and operators during check-in. We’re confirming details regarding the installation process timeline.

The best thing that the public can do to protect each other and our bus drivers is to stay home, or if they must travel, to wear a mask or face covering.

Some of the steps Metro has taken to protect our employees’ health include:

• Disinfects vehicles daily and workspaces twice daily

• Moved to rear-door boarding to minimize interactions

• Encourages higher-risk employees to stay home

• Transitioned many customer-facing operations to web and phone

• Provides face coverings to front-line employees

As previously shared, Metro’s driver screen program is exploring options in the industry to assess each model and its impacts on our drivers and passengers. In the past, Metro conducted two pilots involving four different types of driver screens. While no model tested received broad support from drivers, Metro is continuing to explore different designs that promote a safe environment for our operators and the public. We are working closely with our labor partners on this work.

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