State DOTs, Transit Agencies Responding to Coronavirus

As the coronavirus continues to spread across America, state departments of transportation are being tasked with a variety of duties as part of both state- and federal-level response efforts to the disease.

Formally known as COVID-19, the coronavirus is a “newly discovered” organism that has not been previously detected in animals or humans that causes mild-to-moderate respiratory illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and its symptoms mirror those of the flu, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Major outbreaks are ongoing in China, Iran, and Italy, with several isolated coronavirus infections occurring in Washington, New York, California, and other states.

Vice President Mike Pence. Photo via the White House.

Vice President Mike Pence, who is heading up the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said in a press briefing on March 4 that there are more than 100 coronavirus cases in total across the United States at the moment and that the risk to healthy Americans contracting the disease “remains low.”

State DOTs are becoming involved in the coronavirus response effort as state governments active emergency plans designed to deal with contagions.

“We are currently working with the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and New Hampshire Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to be a trusted source of state-related coronavirus information,” noted Eileen Meaney, chief communications officer for the New Hampshire DOT.

“We are also working internally to make sure that we are addressing employee safety [and following] best practice policies and workplace operations plans to ensure that we have our bases covered in the event of wide spread transmission” of the disease, she said.

Gov. Mike DeWine

In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine (R) has ordered the Ohio DOT to post information about proper handwashing in all of the highway rest areas under the agency’s supervision – part of the state’s emergency response efforts to counteract the infectious nature of the coronavirus.

“I want to be clear that the threat of coronavirus in Ohio and the United States remains low,” the governor said in a statement on February 27. “But this could change, and we have to be prepared. I believe it is imperative that we are open with the public and are communicating information in real-time about the coronavirus to both inform and educate our communities.  We will communicate what we know, when we know it.”

The Utah Department of Emergency Managements recently raised its emergency operations center activation status to EOC Level 3 and has convened a group of public information officers – including from the Utah DOT – to keep the public up to date with the latest information on the coronavirus, which includes a dedicated website.

Photo by the MBTA

Public transit systems are also stepping up efforts to sanitize subways, trains, and buses to stop the spread of the disease.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority – a division of the Massachusetts DOT – increased the “frequency and intensity” of its vehicle and station cleaning efforts as of March 4, establishing a “new protocol” to clean high-contact surfaces in subway stations every four hours and offer more widely-dispersed hand sanitizer locations.

“Although the risk for COVID-19 remains low in Massachusetts, we are taking steps to protect the health and safety of our customers and our employees by expanding disinfecting and sanitation measures,” said Steve Poftak, MBTA’s general manager, in a statement.

Steve Poftak (r) with MassDOT Secretary Stepahie Pollack. Photo by Joshua Qualls/Massachusetts Governor’s Office.

“As an additional precaution, we remind the public to follow existing best practices from the CDC and Prevention and Massachusetts Department of Public Health to protect themselves,” he said.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Transit agency has formed an internal task force aligned with the statewide coronavirus task force so it can “take any and all steps necessary to protect the health and safety of our customers and employees,” noted Kevin Corbett, NJ TRANSIT president and CEO, in a March 3 statement.

However, the growing worry among state governments regarding the coronavirus is not so much the impact of the disease itself but increased levels of panic among the general public.

Gov. Cuomo

“We have a bigger problem, which is a fear pandemic. And the anxiety here is outpacing the reality of the situation,” noted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) in a March 4 statement.

“People get frightened when one of two things happen. Either I’m not receiving information or I don’t trust the information I’m receiving, or the information is very frightening,” he explained.

“In this case, the information is not very frightening, the facts are not very frightening. This is a virus that spreads much like the flu virus. Roughly 80 percent of the people who get the coronavirus will ‘self-resolve,’ meaning they’ll have it, they’ll be walking around with it, they may have some symptoms, but they will self-resolve,” the governor noted. “The people at greatest risk are senior citizens, people with compromised immune systems or people with an underlying illness. That is our focus.”

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