Photo by Jake Hines A vaccination site at Cesar Chavez High School in south Phoenix on Friday, March 12, 2020. The high school was turned into a vaccination site from March 12-14 for transit workers and U.S. Postal Service employees to be vaccinated.
Photo by Jake Hines

Bus, light rail, paratransit workers and U.S. Postal Service employees can be vaccinated in south Phoenix this weekend.

Sandra Wooten has been a bus driver in Phoenix for 15 years, but this year she faced compounded stress as her job put her on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

Wooten’s been the target of anxiety and frustration from the bus-riding public this year, who she says have called her names and not adhered to health and public safety protocols.

“It’s been really a hateful experience when COVID-19 came,” Wooten said. “There was a high level of anxiety that caused people to feel the way they did because of COVID.”

One Year Later

It’s been one year since the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, but many essential workers in Arizona—including transit employees and grocery store workers—have yet to be vaccinated.

But on Friday, Wooten was finally able to be vaccinated at Cesar Chavez High School in south Phoenix, along with other transit workers who will receive the vaccine through a partnership between the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, the Phoenix Union High School District and Albertsons and Safeway.

Wooten said Friday that she was “stoked” to hear the news that she would be vaccinated, particularly with the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“My experience here, today I would give an A+,” she said as she waited in an observation area after receiving her shot. “Thumbs up.”

A One-Shot Stop

The vaccination site will be open from Friday through Sunday and administer the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines to eligible employees. The state received 57,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last week, but will not receive any additional doses this week as supply fluctuates, according to the state’s public health director Dr. Cara Christ.

The event is open only to public transit personnel including bus, light rail and paratransit workers, as well as United States Postal Service employees.

There are approximately 4,000 frontline transit workers in the Phoenix-metro area, according to Valley Metro. On Friday, Valley Metro CEO Scott Smith reflected on what transit employees have had to endure since the first days of the pandemic when there was still so much uncertainty around the virus.

“Even in that environment, people showed up. I was constantly amazed that our workers kept coming and kept serving,” Smith told The Copper Courier. “To be able to finally put them in a place where they have a dedicated site to get them the vaccine is just incredibly satisfying.”

Cars wait at a vaccination site at Cesar Chavez High School in south Phoenix on Friday, March 12, 2020.
Photo by Jake Hines

Transit Workers Waiting Their Turn

Arizona’s vaccine distribution has rolled out in phases since the first doses arrived in December. Transit workers, grocery store employees, and food and restaurant workers were included in Phase 1B of the state’s vaccine rollout, but not considered among the priority groups like teachers and childcare workers in that group that were among the first to get the vaccine January. 

Smith said he’s grateful there hasn’t been an outbreak tied to public transit in Phoenix, which has a less dense public transportation system than cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo, or New York.

He also credited the health measures that Valley Metro put in place early in the pandemic to ensure social distancing on public transit, which included installing plastic shields between drivers and the public.

“Other transit agencies around the country have been hit hard. We have not,” Smith said. “I just think they’ve just done a good job of following the rules. We have been very, very fortunate.”

A High-Risk Work Environment

Wooten has several high-risk health conditions but told The Copper Courier that she’s been lucky that she hasn’t gotten sick this year at work. Still, she said she’s had several coworkers contract the virus and even die.

Public transportation serves as a confluence of people from all walks of life, and the lack of cleanliness on public buses as well as a lack of enforcement on mask-wearing from city officials led to an unsafe environment for transit workers, Wooten said.

“I did what was appropriate for me. I don’t think the city did their part of the job to keep people free from germs,” she said. “Nobody believed that they had to wear (masks). That put us in jeopardy in many ways.”

Photo by Jake Hines

Increased Vaccine Supply Sees More Essential Workers Being Vaccinated

While vaccine distribution was slow in the beginning, when the first doses arrived in December, Smith said supplies are starting to catch up and credited the arrival of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as the reason why so many transit workers were able to be vaccinated this weekend.

Dr. Christ said the state is looking to use the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine for younger, healthier essential workers to ensure they are able to be vaccinated more quickly as they continue to work on the front lines.

And, on Thursday, President Joe Biden pledged to make all American adults eligible for a vaccine by May 1. 

“I believe that everybody including the grocery workers and all those who deserve this will be able to get it simply because the supply will be there,” Smith said. “That’s what helped us. We wouldn’t be here but for the supply becoming available.”

All Essential Workers Now Eligible

All essential workers in Maricopa County are now eligible to sign up for the vaccine as of Friday, but not all of them will be able to get an appointment immediately as the county waits on more vaccine supply.

Workers who are considered essential under the county’s new guidance include food and agriculture workers, restaurant and bar employees, grocery store and convenience store workers, U.S. Postal Service employees, public transit workers, state and local government employees and manufacturing employees.

The county said Wednesday that it is partnering with large companies to let eligible employees know about vaccine events, like the partnership with Valley Metro.

A spokesperson for Maricopa County said they have been in contact with several restaurant groups, including the Arizona Restaurant Association, to partner with healthcare providers to provide vaccine appointments for their workers. 

Smith expressed thanks to the county and the Phoenix Union High School District in putting together the vaccination event once the Johnson & Johnson vaccine became available. 

“They worked hard with us…to move transit workers up to their rightful place as far as priority,” he said. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

For more information on where to register for a vaccine appointment in Maricopa County and across the state, visit azdhs.gov/findvaccine.

Reach the reporter at lorraine@couriernewsroom.com or 480-243-4086.