Trolley workers fear hepatitis from riders who use trains as bathrooms

Workers in charge of maintaining San Diego trolleys say homeless people regularly urinate and defecate inside the trains, and the hepatitis A outbreak across the county has them worried they may be infected.

In a letter to CEO Paul Jablonski, the lawyer representing the Public Transit Employees Association requested a meet-and-confer session to address the union members’ health concerns — and any concerns of trolley riders.

“We have been told that it has become more commonplace for (apparent) homeless riders on the trolley to defecate and urinate in trolley cars in early morning hours,” attorney Maria Severson wrote Thursday. “We have been told that some of the homeless riders are getting onto the trains with passes, laying out newspapers and defecating inside the trolley cars.”

The two-page letter, which also requests that the law against going to the bathroom inside trolleys be more strictly enforced, was addressed to Jablonski but Severson also sent copies to 14 members of the Metropolitan Transit System board of directors.

By Friday, Jablonski replied with a two-page note of his own, outlining the agency’s response to the hepatitis A emergency. He too copied all of the board members.

“Be assured that MTS is taking every precaution for its employees and passengers in response to the hepatitis A outbreak,” he wrote. “We have been very proactive in our efforts.”

The MTS chief also said he and his staff have encouraged all employees to get vaccinated against the virus, and managers held a health fair offering vaccinations..

Cases of riders urinating or defecating inside the train cars are extremely rare, Jablonski said.

“When it happens, we immediately take the train out of service and thoroughly clean the vehicle,” he wrote. “Additionally, as per county protocols, we enhanced our cleaning procedures several weeks ago.

“We have added a bleach solution to our nightly cleaning of all trolley, bus and station surfaces,” he added. “Cleaning procedures have been reviewed with all personnel. Employees have been provided gloves and other personal; protective gear to further provide for their safety.”

The hepatitis A outbreak has infected almost 500 people in San Diego County in recent months, making it one of the worst events of its kind in decades. Seventeen people in the region have died from the disease, and more cases are expected in coming months.

County health officials say the crisis is expected to grow worse, in large part because the particular strain is being spread person-to-person rather than through a single food source, which is far more common.

Also complicating the response is an incubation period that can stretch for up to 50 days. That means an infected trolley passenger can touch a seat or rail and the virus could be transmitted for weeks thereafter.

Jablonski did not respond to Severson’s request for a meeting to discuss the hepatitis threat to the 325 or so union members represented by the attorney.

The Metropolitan Transit System operates a network of buses and trolleys that service much of south and east San Diego County. Its budget is just over $278 million.

Last month, as city and county officials ramped up their response to the public health threat, Jablonski announced that he was boosting security along its 95 bus routes and across its three trolley lines covering about 53 miles.

jeff.mcdonald@sduniontribune.com (619) 293-1708 @sdutMcDonald

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