A 38R Geary Rapid Muni bus pulls up to a stop at Geary Boulevard and Park Presidio Boulevard in the Richmond District on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A 38R Geary Rapid Muni bus pulls up to a stop at Geary Boulevard and Park Presidio Boulevard in the Richmond District on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SFMTA operators deemed eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccine

Frontline workers considered critical to city operations under ‘emergency worker’ Phase 1B category

Muni operators are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Previously told they’d been put at the back of the line, bus and train drivers were informed Wednesday that they would be able to make vaccine appointments starting that same day alongside those who work in food and agriculture, education and child care and emergency services.

“It’s kind of like a sigh of relief,” said Roger Marenco, president of TWU Local 250A, the union that represents many Muni operators. “Our members deal with hundreds of people, literally, on a daily basis, so if anyone is more prone or more exposed to COVID-19 it would definitely be our frontline workers.”

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency staff, including vehicle operators, safety inspectors and transit maintenance workers, have reported to work in person every day for the entirety of the pandemic. They have carried essential workers to job sites, seniors to healthcare appointments and low income families to food banks, and also ensured street closures are maintained, outdoor dining is safely supported and bike lanes are installed citywide.

But when Gov. Gavin Newsom shifted the statewide vaccination plan in late January from a largely sector-based system to an age-based system, confusion abounded around what it meant for these frontline workers who didn’t clearly fall into one of the three workplace buckets delineated as high priority groups: food and agriculture, education and child care, and emergency services.

City officials, unions and transportation advocacy organizations across California interpreted the change to mean transit operators had been kicked out of the prioritized groups and would no longer receive shots in their arms after healthcare workers and individuals over 65, as was originally the case.

“We want to make sure our frontline essential workers who have been showing up to work every single day throughout the pandemic are given the respect they deserve and given vaccinations,” Jeffrey Tumlin, who runs SFMTA, told the Board of Directors on Feb. 16.

Advocacy from Tumlin, Mayor London Breed and other California transit executives seems to have worked.

City employees received an email from human resources officials on Wednesday clarifying that the “emergency services” bucket accounts for a swath of frontline workers essential to maintaining critical infrastructure and city operations.

The COVID Command Center confirmed in an email that the expansion to 1B includes emergency services workers as defined as “employees involved in emergency response activities and law enforcement as well as frontline City workers required to report in person who are responsible to maintain critical infrastructure and City operations.”

That includes Muni operators and other transit workers responsible for maintenance and safety who have never had the opportunity to work from home while so many have sheltered in place.

“This is absolutely imperative,” Marenco said of the simplified guidance.

While not all SFMTA workers have an official agency email — a communication gap they’re looking to rectify — Marenco said he’s confident all his members will be informed of their eligibility quickly.

“Word here at Muni spreads like wildfire,” he said.

SFMTA isn’t the only transit agency that serves San Francisco. Rail agencies BART and Caltrain, for example, operate throughout The City, and some operators and other staff members also live here in San Francisco.

On Thursday afternoon, BART determiend its operators who live or work in San Francisco would be eligible for vaccination under this same classification. The agency said it was working with the other counties in which it operates to achieve similar eligibility.

The picture was less clear for Caltrain. A spokesperson told the Examiner the agency was in talks with San Mateo County, but that there was “nothing concrete yet” about those operators who live and/or work in San Francisco.

San Francisco’s vaccine demand still far outweighs its supply.

As of Feb. 24, 19 percent of The City’s population over the age of 16 had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

While the pace of vaccinations had improved in the past month, shortages caused The City to temporarily pause new appointments at two of its mass vaccination sites earlier this month.

Though officials encourage anyone who falls into one of the categories prioritized in Phase 1B to sign up for appointments, they do caution that eligibility does not equal access, and are clear that it might take some time before the number of doses available to The City can keep pace with the number of people who qualify to receive the shots.

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