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May 11, 2009

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APTA BUS & PARATRANSIT CONFERENCE COVERAGE

Managing Pandemic Flu: Special Session
BY SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor

Public transportation professionals facing the emergence of the H1N1 flu heard from representatives of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and transit agencies about how manage a potential pandemic at a special session during the APTA Bus & Paratransit Conference.

Mike Flanigon, FTA director of safety and security, discussed Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s emergency response team comprising the heads of the modal administrations, including FTA, stating that the Secretary will share the team’s comments when he meets with President Barack Obama about the possible impact of the flu on U.S. communities.

“We’re somewhat optimistic that this flu won’t be as severe as it seemed, but we shouldn’t get too lax either,” Flanigon said. He recommended going to the web sites of the Centers for Disease Control and the new PandemicFlu.gov site for up-to-date information.

Alexa Dupigny-Samuels, chief safety officer for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), noted that the agency is making plans for a possible second wave of flu cases and has begun tracking absenteeism among its staff members. She repeated the standard advice for avoiding illness: cover coughs, sneeze into an elbow rather than a hand, wash hands often, and don’t touch your face.

Sharon Cooney, director of government affairs and community relations for the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), said that light rail ridership dropped up to 30 percent in the early days of the flu epidemic in Mexico but has begun to bounce back. “We’re taking our cue from local health services,” she said, adding that the MTS web site now includes a continuously updated page devoted to the flu.

Carolyn Flowers, chief operating officer of Los Angeles Metro, said: “Los Angeles County has many other operators besides Metro, so we’re working together to ensure that the region’s response is consistent.”

Alessandro Guariento, senior vice president of safety for MV Transportation, said his company is working to prevent panic and keep its employees informed. “We’re staying vigilant, letting people know that public transportation is safe,” he explained.

Panelists and audience members noted that transit agencies dealing with possible pandemic flu could learn from Toronto, which dealt with the SARS epidemic in 2003, and from frank conversations with transit professionals in Mexico. Dupigny-Samuels said WMATA already has a pandemic plan, created when it considered the possibility of SARS or avian flu epidemics; she suggested that agencies with similar plans keep them up to date.

The basic guidelines to follow, according to the presenters, are to review contingency plans; educate staff; share experiences about the most efficient and safest ways to disinfect transit vehicles (specifically, spray chemicals onto a cloth instead of into the air or directly onto a surface); and, above all, stay calm.

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