Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine Shouldn’t Require a Car: The Case for VaxTransit

Published in Mass Transit – February 12, 2021

Public transit should be central to the effort to equitably connect millions of Americans with the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine. Instead, long lines of cars snake through streets and jam lots surrounding stadiums and convention centers that serve as vaccination locations. Heavy reliance on drive-through vaccination makes it difficult for millions of Americans to get the vaccine without a car.

Vaccination rates for communities of color, among the most reliant on public transit and hardest-hit by the pandemic, are impacted by inequity in vaccine access. The Kaiser Family Foundation analyzed state-reported vaccination data and found that, “the vaccination rate among White people is over three times higher than the rate for Hispanic people (10% vs 3%) and twice as high as the rate for Black people (10% vs. 5%).”

A survey by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases found that 47% of Black Americans cited a lack of confidence in equitable distribution. “Access matters,” says Dr. Rhea Boyd, a pediatrician, public health advocate and scholar who writes and teaches about the impacts of racism and inequity on health. Boyd continues, ”A closer look at the data reveals that when Black people are given the opportunity, they do get vaccinated.”

Vice President Kamala Harris emphasized equitable vaccine access during a virtual tour of Arizona’s mass vaccination site at State Farm Stadium. She asked state officials about their plans for “hardest-hit communities and those who may have a difficult time with transportation.” Transit agencies, state officials, and the federal government should work together to ensure the administration’s national vaccination program equitably protects 100 million people in its first 100 days. Here’s how to make it happen.

1. Give Transit Workers National Vaccine Priority.

Ensure transit workers have the highest priority on the vaccine line. These public servants are as essential to our communities as first responders, nurses, childcare workers, public works employees, and other frontline workers.

By vaccinating transit workers, we protect the people who make it possible for every other essential worker to safely get to work, and back home to family. A vaccinated driver, on an uncrowded bus or train, with a mask mandate in place for everyone is the best advertisement to reassure riders that transit is safe.

2. Choose Transit-Friendly Vaccination Locations.

Transit access should be a determining factor in selecting vaccination sites. For example, Philadelphia just opened a mass vaccination clinic at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Center City. This is a location well-served by transit, with SEPTA bus routes, subways, and regional rail within blocks of the building. As officials open more clinics, each should be located within easy reach of multiple transit routes.

Every transit system operates hubs with high ridership. These hubs can host vaccination sites. For example, Kitsap Transit is hosting a vaccination site at its Gateway Center hub, served by local buses, a fast ferry route to Seattle, and paratransit. Making vaccinations available to people where they catch their bus or train is critical to curbing COVID-19.

3. Provide Free Transit to Vaccination Sites.

Since the COVID-19 vaccine is free to all Americans, transit to the vaccine should be free as well. In at least fifteen states, transit systems are offering free rides for shots. For example, in San Antonio, Texas, VIA Metropolitan Transit is offering free round-trips to COVID-19 vaccination sites. In Southern California, San Diego Metropolitan Transit System and North County Transit District are working together to provide free rides to vaccines in San Diego County. In both instances, the agencies have an easy, simple policy for riders and operators: just show your appointment confirmation when you board transit on the day of your vaccination.

North Carolina has a statewide strategy to provide free transit for vaccinations. The North Carolina Department of Transportation and North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services are distributing $2.5 million in coronavirus relief funds to local transit agencies throughout the state to help pay for vaccine rides. By ensuring equitable access to the vaccine, transit agencies further fulfill their purpose, embodied in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to equally benefit everyone they serve.

4. Deliver Vaccination Teams Directly to Vulnerable Communities.

Just as bloodmobiles and bookmobiles long have delivered vital civic services, transit vehicles can be used to transport vaccination teams directly to neighborhoods, especially in rural communities, to deliver vaccinations to elderly, disabled, and homebound people.

Yankee Line, a Boston-based tour bus operator, is reconfiguring its fleet of buses as mobile vaccination units. Yankee Line manager Michael Costa says the company has converted six of its buses by removing seats to create separate vaccination spaces, and preparing refrigeration space for cold storage of vaccines. He estimates that 1,500 buses similar to those used by his company can be converted in about ten days to reach communities across the country.

While ridership is low, deploying buses and trains and tapping transit operators’ local expertise will help the Biden Administration’s proposed new community health teams deliver life-saving vaccines to vulnerable communities. Keeping skilled, dedicated frontline workers on the job will help transit recover better from the pandemic.

Boston-based Yankee Line is turning its buses into mobile vaccination units.

‘Shot in the Arm’ Helps Transit

The Biden-Harris Administration has committed the nation to a pandemic rescue and recovery plan that will need the whole-of-government to speed vaccination. Public transit can help the administration carry out this commitment, with 6,800 transit systems around the country helping ensure hard-hit communities have equitable access to the vaccine.

To pay for these programs, Congress should quickly approve the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan, so that transit agencies have the resources to help get shots in arms. Pairing public transit and public health will help rebuild confidence in riding buses and trains, and advance a post-pandemic future in which transit can fully realize its promise.

Stewart Mader works with agencies and policy makers to build better transit, from advocacy to operations, apps to maps, and wayfinding to payment. He previously served as the first Chief Customer Experience Officer for NJ Transit‘s 270 million annual passenger trips, and guided customer experience for the Port Authority of NY & NJ‘s 80 million annual transit riders as Chair of PATH Riders Council. His insights appear in Mass Transit, Mobility Lab, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and other leading publications.

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