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“Right away, we had 19 drivers volunteer to help out”: How Wheel-Trans operators are helping Covid-positive patients get medical care

By Dwayne Geddes| Photography by Daniel Neuhaus
“Right away, we had 19 drivers volunteer to help out”: How Wheel-Trans operators are helping Covid-positive patients get medical care

I’ve been with the TTC for 16 years now. I started out as a streetcar operator, and now I’m the department head of Wheel-Trans. I oversee all aspects of the service, including the reservationists who book the trips, the control centre dispatching all the vehicles, and the operators who complete the trips.

Typically, our system is set up to share rides as often as possible. Now, we’re practising social distancing on our vehicles by offering as many solo rides as possible. Our dispatch team has to be extra-cautious, and ensure there’s only one person per vehicle aside from the driver. Luckily, we haven’t had a backlog: our customers are taking the direction of Toronto Public Health very seriously, so the number of requested Wheel-Trans trips has decreased. Customers are only booking only essential trips at this time, which allows us to schedule one customer per vehicle.

We serve a truly vulnerable group of people. Many of our passenger require life-sustaining treatment, like dialysis or chemotherapy, and have no other way to get around. In late March, Toronto’s Office of Emergency Management got in touch with Wheel-Trans to inform us that shelters across the city needed our support to move people out of the shelter system to isolation sites, Covid assessment centres or hospitals. From there, our response grew to include special transport for Wheel-Trans customers who may be Covid positive or have symptoms of Covid.

We weren’t sure how many of our operators would be interested in helping out, because it wasn’t a mandatory thing, but we had an overwhelming response. Right away, we had 19 operators say, “Yes, absolutely we will do it.” It was very heartwarming to see how much our operators care about the citizens of Toronto, and how they’re willing to help out in this time of need.

The process is pretty straightforward. Our Wheel-Trans dispatch centre will get a call from either a City of Toronto representative requesting to transport someone, or a customer will call to book their own trip and inform us that they’re either getting tested or already know they’re Covid positive. The operator dons a full set of PPE—mask, gloves, goggles and gowns—and completes the trip. Once the drop-off is completed,  the operator returns to Wheel-Trans division and the vehicle receives a special clean. On the next call, the operator will put on fresh PPE and use a vehicle that has already had a special clean. We also request that all customers also wear a mask. To date, we’ve transported 70 customers. It’s a mix of regular Wheel-Trans customers and people who are in the shelter system.

Our operators aren’t used to wearing PPE, so Toronto EMS held a training session on how to properly don and doff the equipment. We received a supply of PPE from the City of Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration division, and we have additional stock provided by the TTC for any special transports that Wheel-Trans customers may require. There’s a super-detailed technique to taking off the PPE and disposing of it appropriately. You’ve got to take off the glasses and the gown first, then remove the mask, making sure it doesn’t touch any other part of your face. The gloves come off last, and you have to be careful not to touch any parts of your body that weren’t exposed while removing the potentially contaminated garments.

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One special transport driver, Alonzo Cardozo Jr., told me he picked up an elderly lady who was hesitant and nervous to board the bus because she didn’t have anything to protect herself. When he offered her a pair of gloves and a face mask, she broke down into tears, saying that we are all angels and thanking him for giving up his safety equipment. She said, “We need you guys the most out of anybody in our lives right now. Without you guys we’d be stuck at home.” Another driver, Jill Jobity, told me she picked up a customer who had just received her negative test result for Covid-19. The customer was so happy she asked Jill to turn up the the music so she could dance in her seat.

We’re in unprecedented times here, and I think it’s really important for us as Wheel-Trans to support our customers any way we can. One of our customers wrote us an e-mail to thank us. “I don’t know if operators realize how far reaching their interaction has on their passengers’ lives. Transporting them, no matter where, gives them a sense of freedom and a bit of normalcy,” they wrote. We take pride in the fact we can be of assistance, especially in these tough times. It was important for us to step up to the plate and be a constant for our customers, so they don’t have to worry about how they’re going to get to and from their life-sustaining treatments.

I’m in a management capacity now, but I wish I could put on the uniform and just go out on the front lines and drive around, because I know how much it’s needed. Our front-line operators are just golden. I respect them like almost nobody else I know. They’re out here every day working hard, and I want to thank them every time I see them.

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We live in the best city in the world, in my mind, and we’ve got all the resources in place to get us through. It’s going to be a little bit of time before we get through it, but knowing we will get through it is what’s really keeping me going.

—As told to Isabel B. Slone

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