Nearly a quarter of New York City’s frontline transit workers may have contracted COVID-19 — and those who took sick likely caught the virus at work, a preliminary survey released Monday by New York University shows.
The researchers received questionnaires from 645 frontline NYC Transit employees, and 24% of them reported a positive COVID-19 diagnosis or antibody test — significantly higher than an assessment released by Gov. Cuomo on May 13, which analyzed antibody tests and found that 14% of transit workers had contracted the disease.
The virus — which has killed at least 131 MTA workers — likely spread quickly within transit workplaces, said Robyn Gershon, the NYU epidemiologist leading the research.
Gershon’s team found that those who contracted the disease did not live in areas with high infection rates, meaning they likely got sick on the job, she said.
“From our New York City data, transit workers were almost twice as likely to be living in a low-risk neighborhood if they were positive, so it looks like it probably was work related,” said Gershon. “We’ll probably never be able to fully tease that apart, but we’re doing more digging.”
Gershon previously headed a probe into the evacuation of the Word Trade Center towers during the 9/11 terror attacks. Her findings led to changes to the city’s fire code — but she fears many transit workers will suffer from PTSD like 9/11 first responders.
“Long-term PTSD is devastating to your life. We followed up with the World Trade Center study 16 years after … and many of them have severe impact,” Gershon said. “They can’t leave their apartments. They can’t work. They’ve gotten divorces. That’s what we don’t want to happen to this group.”
MTA officials said NYU’s findings were merely preliminary. The agency’s data show that just 3,921 — or 7.4% — of the employees at NYC Transit, the agency’s largest subsidiary, caught COVID-19
“If that’s true … that’s much lower than the overall New York City infection rate,” said Gershon. “I’m thinking if people went to their family doctor and got tested maybe the MTA doesn’t know about those.”
MTA spokeswoman Abbey Collins said the survey “is a poll, not a study,” and argued the figures NYU reported were higher because positive cases were self-reported by transit workers.
“We hope any future ‘study’ is based on science, data and facts as the MTA’s highest priority remains the safety of our workforce,” Collins said.
Tony Utano, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents roughly 40,000 MTA workers and collaborated with NYU on the research, said his members should be given rapid testing to prevent another major outbreak.
“We put the city on our shoulders when the pandemic hit, and we are still carrying it forward. It has been a heavy burden,” said Utano. “We need to stay vigilant and push forward with new and better ways to defend our blue-collar heroes still moving millions of riders a day.”