Deaths of bus drivers in SF prompt state investigation - Albuquerque Journal

Deaths of bus drivers in SF prompt state investigation

Jose Saenz drives a Santa Fe Trails bus for the City of Santa Fe. Photo shot in Santa Fe, Monday December 20, 2021. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A third Santa Fe Trails Bus System employee has died after contracting COVID-19.

The Transit District worker, a supervisor, died Monday after being hospitalized for COVID since Thanksgiving, city spokesman Dave Herndon said. The supervisor had no contact with the public at the workplace, Herndon said.

The announcement comes amid a New Mexico Environment Department’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau investigation into the deaths.

“Specifically, we are gathering additional information on COVID positive cases among Santa Fe Transit Division workers,” said Stephanie Stringer, the department’s deputy cabinet secretary of operations, in a statement sent last week in response to questions from the Journal.

If the state finds the city did not take steps to prevent worker exposure to COVID “NMED will take appropriate enforcement action and seek corrective measures,” Stringer said in her statement.

“All employees have a right to a safe workplace and employers must protect against the spread of COVID in the workplace,” she said.

Statewide to date, “there have been 28 occupational fatalities related to COVID that NMED’s OSHA program has investigated or is investigating,” according to Stringer.

Herndon said the city has had regular, open lines of communication with OSHA and will continue to do so.

“The City has been stringent in following State guidelines, and formulating our own,” he wrote.

He later added that the city reports to OSHA all positive cases within four hours as required, notifies all identified contacts and provides all employees with proper personal protective equipment and has “ongoing cleaning and sanitizing of City buildings and equipment.”

Jose Saenz, a bus driver for the Santa Fe bus system, professed little concern after the recent deaths of co-workers after they were hospitalized for COVID-19.

“As for driving the buses they are pretty safe honestly, they do a lot of precautions, they fog the bus twice a week,” Saenz said. “They give us all the necessary equipment we need, face masks, gloves, anything to sanitize the buses.”

A Santa Fe Trails bus moves along Jaguar Drive in Santa Fe, Monday December 20, 2021. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The city agreed to the Journal’s request for a driver interview at the Transit District’s headquarters in Santa Fe, as District Director Thomas Martinez stood by.

“The drivers are required to wear masks all the time as well as the passengers are required to wear the masks all the time on the bus,” Saenz said as he prepared for his shift. Outside his bus, he wore shorts despite cold temperatures.

Saenz, 31, preferred not to say whether he had been vaccinated against COVID. The death of his co-workers “raised awareness,” Saenz said. “I don’t know how they contracted the virus or what.” Saenz has driven for the district for about four years.

Santa Fe City policy “requires employees provide proof of vaccination or submit results of a weekly COVID test,” Herndon said.

Martinez said the district does its best “to get (drivers) anything they need.” He reiterated that drivers who are not vaccinated “have to submit a weekly test.” He declined to say if the deceased drivers had been vaccinated, citing family privacy concerns.

Eighty percent of city workers are vaccinated, Herndon said in a statement.

The city followed up an initial statement with one titled Policies and Positive Test Result Guidance for COVID-19.

Those policies include requiring all employees to comply with local and state laws and health orders, to have daily screenings and answer a daily questionnaire before starting work and to discuss intent to leave the state with a supervisor and discuss a quarantine strategy.

Herndon said the city has “no concern” that the public came in close contact with the drivers.

Santa Fe’s bus ridership has dropped post-COVID, Martinez said, annual ridership is around 300,000 now, down from about 800,000 pre-COVID.

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