FACT CHECK: Has the risk of catching COVID-19 on public transit been overstated?
MOSTLY TRUE based on the research so far. Though there has been limited research on the subject, current evidence suggests that public transit systems have not been a major source of transmission.
Few Canadians have been using public transit since the COVID-19 lockdown began. Ridership on Toronto’s public transit system fell by 80 to 85 percent after the COVID-19 outbreak, according to the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), and by 80 to 90 percent in Montreal. In a poll done by sociologists at the University of Toronto, almost a quarter of respondents said they won’t use Toronto’s transit system until there is a COVID-19 vaccine.
But there have been suggestions that public transit has been unfairly blamed for spreading the virus. A recent op-ed in The Atlantic by two public transit experts (former commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan, and her former press secretary Seth Solomonow) argued that public transit has not been proven to be a major disseminator of COVID-19. Instead, they write that the dangers of taking public transit have been exaggerated.
Research hasn’t convincingly shown that public transit is a major source of infection
In a paper titled “The Subways Seeded the Massive Coronavirus Epidemic in New York City,” MIT economist Jeffrey Harris claimed that New York City’s subway system was a major spreader of COVID-19, and that the 90 percent drop in ridership once shutdowns began was responsible for slowing the spread of the virus.
To support his argument, Harris mapped out subway stops to show that they matched ZIP codes where the rate of COVID-19 cases were highest. He also claimed that the disproportionately high number of deaths among NYC transit workers was further proof that the subway caused the virus to spread throughout the city.
Not everyone was convinced. Critics were quick to point out that the slowdown could be due to other physical distancing measures, like the closing of restaurants and stay-at-home orders. The maps don’t always support Harris’s argument, either. Staten Island, a borough where most people use cars rather than public transit, appears just as susceptible to COVID-19.
It’s also worth noting that even if NYC’s subways were a major spreader of COVID-19—which remains unproven—that doesn’t seem to be true of other countries. In France, the national public health agency looked at 150 clusters of COVID-19 cases from May and June and found that none originated in the public transit system. In Japan, researchers traced no cases to commuter trains. Instead, they found clusters linked to areas like gyms, pubs, and karaoke rooms. And in Taipei, Taiwan, ridership has dropped by only around 20 percent this year and approximately 2 million people continued to use the subway each day in February and March—but the country has managed to almost completely wipe out the virus.
The Toronto Star found that Canadian authorities have not traced any cases to public transit, although some experts warned that the two-week incubation period makes it difficult to say where cases originate. Sixty-five TTC workers have been infected with COVID-19, but it’s not clear how many caught the virus while on the job.
We still don’t know everything about how the virus spreads
None of this means that the virus can’t spread on public transit. Contact tracing is easier to do when it involves workplaces, homes, or familiar places because people remember who they were in contact with, as epidemiologist and University of Toronto professor Colin Furness told the Toronto Star. It’s possible that cases are spreading on public transit that haven’t been accounted for.
That said, it’s a positive sign that following rules seems to be making a difference in Japan and France, where most commuters wear masks, rarely speak to each other, and stay as far apart as they can.
Like any public place, there is still a possibility of getting COVID-19 while riding the subway or the city bus. However, recent research suggests that the danger is lower than previously believed and that taking precautions—like wearing masks—can substantially reduce the risk.