A Valley Valley Authority bus driver died Sunday after a long battle with COVID-19, the first death among transit agency employees from the virus.
Audrey Lopez, 53, is a San Jose resident who has been a VTA operator for more than 13 years, said John Courtney, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, which represents the agency’s drivers.
Courtney described Lopez as a “really solid human being” who loved his grandchildren and was known for his characteristic laughter and positive attitude. A GoFundMe page has been set up to raise money for funeral expenses.
In a statement Thursday, VTA spokesman Ken Blackstone said: “We are providing advice on employee grief and have addressed our Lopez family with the deepest condolences.”
Lopez last announced that he was working on Friday, August 14, and did not return for the planned change next Monday, Blackstone said. On August 23, she informed the VTA that she had tested positive for coronavirus and was feeling unwell. Blackstone said she never reported working while experiencing symptoms.
Following Lopez’s positive test, Blackstone said the agency had “tracked down some VTA employees” with whom it had been in contact.
But the VTA did not tell these workers to isolate themselves, nor did it inform passengers who may have been riding Lopez’s buses. Blackstone said this was because the CDC’s contact tracking guidelines considered a person infected up to two days before symptoms began, and Lopez fell ill three days after she last reported working.
Since the start of the pandemic, 27 VTA employees have tested positive for COVID-19, Blackstone said, a figure that includes workers in roles that do not interact with the public. Three of those workers are still recovering from the virus, he said, while 23 have returned to work.
The VTA claims that Lopez did not contract the coronavirus at work. A review of Lopez’s activities before her last working day found that she had complied with safety protocols and was wearing protective equipment, according to Blackstone, who said a third-party investigation had found “absolutely no link” between her infection and the agency.
Courtney, the union’s local president, disputed the allegation and said he suspected Lopez was infected while driving for the VTA. Bus operators like Lopez interact with countless passengers every day, Courtney said, and “all he did was come back and go from work.”
Blackstone said the agency has taken steps to protect drivers and riders from COVID-19: VTA riders must wear face masks, and the agency has limited the capacity of its buses to ensure that people can move away socially. attitude. VTA drivers operate buses behind falling plastic barriers designed to protect them from passengers.
While many people avoided public transport during the pandemic for fears that the virus could spread among passengers, advocates of transit note that there is scarce evidence that buses or trains are particularly risky. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the University of Berkeley, describes driving public transport as a “medium-risk” activity, as is eating in a restaurant, as long as everyone wears masks and has enough space for social distancing. .