A woman takes the tube in central London on July 31, 2020 Source: AFP

NEW YORK.- Five months after the outbreak of

coronavirus

that hit New York City,

the vast majority of New Yorkers continue to avoid public transportation

simply because it is too dangerous to share a closed space with strangers.

But the picture seen in the world's largest cities seems to suggest that public transportation is not that risky. as some distraught New Yorkers believe.

In countries where the pandemic subsided, passengers returned to public transport in much greater proportions than in New York City, despite the absence of any episode of supercontamination associated with mass transport, according to a survey carried out by the newspaper. The New York Times before the transport organizations.

The data collected could be evidence that Subways, city trains and buses would not be a significant source of the virus, as long as passengers wear masks and the wagons or buses are not so crowded as they did at peak times before the pandemic.

Managing to solve the risk of mass transit would have enormous repercussions for many large cities in the United States, particularly New York, where one of the biggest challenges in channeling the post-pandemic recovery will be convincing passengers to return to the subways, buses and trains. urban, a vast transportation network that is the backbone of the region's economy.

In March, when the city was quarantined, more than 90% of the 5.5 million passengers who use public transport on business days left the system. Even now that the city has largely contained the virus and reopened several of its economic activities, the number of passengers is barely 20% of what was in the prepandemia, which complicates the economic situation of the New York transportation operator, whose budget depends 40% on the sale of tickets.


Passengers wear face masks while riding the subway in Hong Kong on July 29, 2020, after new social distancing measures went into effect Source: AFP

"What is happening in other cities allows us to be optimistic," says Toph Allen, an epidemiologist and co-author, together with the public transport defense group CampaƱa de Transporte Triestatal, of a report on the transmission of coronavirus in public transport. "If the transportation system works in an area where there are no major outbreaks, it can be inferred that transportation can be safe."

In Paris, the public health authorities that track the contacts of the infected They discovered that none of the 386 contagion chains identified between early May and mid-July had a connection to the use of public transport. in the city.

In Austria, the study of infection chains in April and May did not link any of the cases to public transport. And in Tokyo, where public health authorities have been intensively tracking infections, chains of the infected have also not been linked to the crowded system of subways and urban trains in the Japanese capital.

But the sanitarians warn that, at the moment, that evidence must be taken with tweezers, and for various reasons. For starters, in many other big cities, passenger numbers still well below pre-pandemic levels. In addition, linking chains of infections with the use of public transport is difficult, the quality of car ventilation systems varies greatly from city to city, and the level of risk depends largely on the overall reduction in the rate of infection. throughout the city.

"There are so many other factors that come into play in risk levels and how you can measure them," says Michael Reid, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine and an expert in contagion tracking. "They are not comparable situations."

In fact, State and city officials have failed to determine if the influx of public transportation had anything to do with the outbreak that devastated New York in March and April., with a balance of more than 20,000 deceased from Covid-19.

The death toll among New York transportation workers was especially devastating. To date, 4,000 employees have tested positive, and 131 died from the virus: almost 90% of them worked in the agency that manages the subways and buses in the city.

For much of those two months, passengers were not required to wear a chinstrap, and the rate of contagion in the city was much higher than it is today. Therefore, at that time public transport was surely a much riskier space.


A woman uses a portable fan to cool down on a platform at London underground station on July 31, 2020
A woman uses a portable fan to cool down on a platform at London underground station on July 31, 2020 Source: AFP

Now, New York authorities are trying to balance two goals: to get as many passengers back as possible, while avoiding the sardine can effect. They have appealed to employers for employees to start their tasks at staggered hours, although the relief for the transportation network that teleworking entails will likely last for months, or even longer.

Case tracking experts warn that connecting a chain of infections with the use of public transport is very difficult, since passengers often do not remember exactly in which car or specific unit they traveledAnd even if they do, contacting those who shared that space at that very moment is virtually impossible.

"Using public transportation is pretty anonymous and giddy," says Crystal Watson, an academic at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

In the months since the peak of the outbreak in New York, the Metropolitan Passenger Transportation Authority, in charge of the city's subways and buses, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the daily disinfection of the cars and units, It has distributed more than a million masks to drivers and drivers, and has launched awareness campaigns on the importance of maintaining physical distance in transportation.

The New York Times

Translation by Jaime Arrambide

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