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Transit systems still figuring out how to transport locals to vaccination clinics

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — When state officials two weeks ago announced funding for transit agencies to assist in getting more people to COVID-19 vaccinations, the announcement came with no clear guidance on how to implement the initiative.

On Jan. 21, state health officials announced an allocation of $2.5 million to local transit agencies in an effort to get more North Carolinians to vaccination sites and appointments. They explained that each transit agency would receive a set amount of funding, and that the initiative would continue until funds are exhausted for that agency. The funds can be used to offset operating costs associated with transit rides to and from vaccination sites for people who are receiving or assisting someone in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

Valerie Steele, the Mid-Carolina Regional Airport and Rowan County Transit director, told the Post that funds will be granted as a reimbursement to the county rather than a lump sum.

“Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic is everybody’s business and every organization has something they can do to help,” said Transportation Secretary J. Eric Boyette in a statement. “We are committed to doing everything we can to help get North Carolinians vaccinated as quickly and easily as possible.”

But with no guidance from state officials and, at the time, a first-come first-served mass vaccination method in Rowan County, local transit agencies were unsure how to make the initiative work with current passenger limits on buses and insufficient “manpower” to wait at vaccination sites.

Rowan County Emergency Management Division Chief TJ Brown said some details of this initiative are still being worked out as the county continues to prepare for future phases and copes with small vaccine allocations.

“The key to all this is being able to get enough vaccine,” he said. “Everything takes time to get to fruition … we’re making decisions on the best way to do these things.”

But discussions to date have proposed bringing the vaccinations to large groups of people in certain areas, which would require coordination with community partners such as the Rowan Helping Ministries and the Rufty-Holmes Senior Center.

“It’s too early to know if bringing it to them would work but we’re continuing to discuss those options,” Brown said.

Other factors to consider for such an initiative include the future demand for vaccinations and coordinating the limited time frame to use the vaccination dose once it’s been unpackaged.

Amid initial discussions of how to navigate the new initiative, Rowan Transit System Operations Manager Avis Heggins said, they received several calls from locals who were confused about the announcement or were under the impression the transit system was in charge of scheduling vaccination appointments. Heggins clarified vaccine appointments must be made ahead of time by the passengers.

Both Rowan County Transit and Salisbury Transit have fixed routes with multiple stops that are open to the general public. Each agency also has an ADA-compliant system that requires an application process to be enrolled. The ADA-compliant buses go door-to-door and require appointments for pick-ups and drop-offs.

Salisbury Transit currently has a route that stops at the West End Plaza and the J.F. Hurley Family YMCA, which are both vaccination clinic sites and located on Jake Alexander Boulevard. Rowan Express, which doesn’t require a rider to schedule in advance, provides service between Salisbury, China Grove, Landis and Kannapolis.

Heggins explained that, upon receiving a call for ADA transit services, rides are coordinated based on where passengers live and whether they’re enrolled with either transit system. If a passenger isn’t within the city limits and isn’t registered to either transit, or if they just need a one-time ride, they’re referred to Brown.

One challenge, however, is that the county’s ADA-compliant buses are smaller and can only hold eight passengers. And with the pandemic, those buses can support no more than three passengers at one time unless one of the stops includes a small family who can be seated together, Heggins said.

Salisbury Transit Director Rodney Harrison said the city’s larger buses can only hold about 15 passengers at the current 50% capacity.

But the county’s decision to implement an appointment model for vaccinations works much better for transit systems logistically.

“I think the initiative is going to be great now that they’re taking appointments,” Heggins said. “We’re here to help in any way we can.”

Harrison agreed, adding that the city can work with appointments, but transit systems don’t have enough vehicles or manpower to support the initiative with a first-come, first-served model.

Ridership on city and county transit has been significantly down over the last year due to the pandemic. Heggins said ridership has dropped by about 50%, which amounts to about 200 trips now. She said one pick-up in the ADA-compliant buses is equal to one trip.

Harrison said ridership has leveled off some, but from July to December Salisbury Transit made 32,400 trips on fixed routes. And though ADA buses only made 3,482 trips within that same time period, it’s not as significant of a drop because those trips service those in need of medical appointments and grocery shopping.

For more information on Salisbury Transit, visit salisburync.gov/Government/Transit. For information about the Rowan County Transit System, visit rowancountync.gov/231/Rowan-Transit-System.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246. 

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