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MTA Struggling to Get Majority of Workers on Vaccination Train

MTA employee Richard Richards, who has been reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine, at the Wakefield–241st Street station on Friday, May. 7, 2021.
MTA employee Richard Richards, who has been reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine, at the Wakefield–241st Street station on Friday, May. 7, 2021.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The transit workers who kept the city moving through some of its darkest days took a sizable hit during the pandemic, with more than 160 MTA employees dying from COVID-19.

Agency data shows that 41% of the more than 70,000 MTA employees have received at least one vaccine dose — about the same rate as city and state residents. But officials concede it won’t be easy to sway vaccine holdouts, even with the MTA offering workers four hours pay to get the shots.

“Yeah, nah,” Richard Richards, a 46-year-old subway train operator, told THE CITY. “I don’t trust it.”

While MTA employee surveys show that just over 50% have received at least one shot, several workers told THE CITY they do not plan to be inoculated against the virus.

“There’s a group that’s going to take a lot of convincing to get a vaccine,” said Patrick Warren, the MTA’s chief safety and security officer. “And it’s not going to be easy.”

The push to vaccinate more employees at the regional transit agency comes as workers are increasingly returning to office buildings, with subway ridership data showing trips now regularly top 2 million on weekdays — or about 35% of pre-pandemic levels.

The MTA is running employee vaccination hubs at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, at Jamaica Station in Queens and at a New York City Transit building in Downtown Brooklyn. The agency has held town hall meetings, bringing in medical doctors to discuss the vaccines with employees. Warren said mobile vaccination sites may soon be set up around the transit system.

And in January, Dr. Anthony Fauci appeared in an MTA video to tout the safety of COVID vaccines and to “strongly encourage” workers to get their shots.

“The sooner you get vaccinated, the sooner we can get our lives back and our country back on track,” said Fauci, a Brooklyn native and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

‘Real Pandemic Is Poor Healthcare’

But the MTA has run into resistance from some transit workers who say they have no plans to be vaccinated. The holdouts cite distrust and hesitancy among Black and Hispanic employees, who make up 40% and 16% of the agency’s workforce, respectively.

“The real pandemic is poor healthcare, poor economics, poor education,” said subway conductor Tramell Thompson, 36, the founder of Progressive Action, a faction of transit workers. “Until those things change, I don’t really see Blacks and Latinos stepping up to the plate to take a vaccine they don’t trust.”

An MTA vaccination center in Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal, March 9, 2021.
An MTA vaccination center in Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal, March 9, 2021.
Marc A. Hermann/ MTA

During a February online broadcast of “Progressive Action TV,” Thompson cited a historic distrust of the government.

“Let’s make no mistake about it, us not trusting the government didn’t happen overnight,” said Thompson, who is Black. “This was decades, centuries of conditioning.”

Bus operator Michael Enriquez, 32, told THE CITY “it’s been a tossup” among some transit workers on whether to get the vaccine — even after the deaths of 162 MTA employees.

“We’ve lost plenty of people to this pandemic,” said Enriquez, who has not been vaccinated. “But I can’t cosign this vaccine if I am not getting the vaccine.”

Waiting at the Platform

Enriquez, who has worked at the MTA for a decade, said some reluctant coworkers want to wait on the completion of clinical trials on vaccines before getting the shots.

“I’m personally just waiting until the end of next year,” said Canella Gomez, a 42-year-old subway train operator.

Eric Loegel, a vice president with Transport Workers Union Local 100, said vaccine hesitancy is real among some transit workers.

“We want more people to get vaccines,” he said. “That’s the way we’re going to beat this thing.”

Warren said the challenge of changing the minds of workers who are resistant to vaccines extends beyond the MTA.

A vaccination center at the Jamaica Long Island Rail Road Station, Thursday, Mar. 25, 2021.
A vaccination center at the Jamaica Long Island Rail Road Station, Thursday, Mar. 25, 2021.
Courtesy of MTA Long Island Rail Road

Some large police departments have reported vaccination rates that are lower or about the same as the general public, according to The Washington Post.

The NYPD reported that only 35% of officers and support staff have been fully vaccinated, according to a department spokesperson.

“It’s a national issue, it’s a state issue, it’s a city issue,” Warren said. “We’re all struggling with it.”

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