Melinda M. Schwenk-Borrell: The Risks to Drivers who Care for Franklin County’s Most Vulnerable Medical Patients under COVID-19

I can manage my own fears with stoicism, but I cannot understand how and why many people in our county would put me and my clients at such risk for illness and death.

Written by Melinda M. Schwenk-Borrell

I began to work for Rabbit Transit (RT) in November 2019. As an online professor for the University of Maryland Global Campus, I need a second job. Since I like to be a useful person who helps people, working for Rabbit Transit is a good choice.

RT is a multi-county service that provides  low-cost or free transportation. What makes our service unique  is that we provide secure transportation for people who need wheelchairs or walkers, are blind, or are otherwise unable to own or drive a vehicle. Our buses have a lift for people who cannot handle stairs.

Melinda and Elinor

Some clients go to elder care or senior centers for a daily meal and socialization. Some go to counseling sessions or dentist appointments. And other clients just need a way to get to and from work, the grocery store or Walmart.

Many of our clients are regulars, especially those who go for dialysis three times a week. Other clients have diabetes, which can require constant care for wounds that do not heal. Many of our clients are what gerontologists call “the old-old” – over 85 – and some clients have dementia and need especially gentle handling. We also transport infants with their parents to well-baby check-ups.

Last January, Rabbit Transit held its annual holiday breakfast, where I met many of my fellow drivers from surrounding counties. As a group, we tend to be over age 60, semi-retired, gregarious and work-oriented. Many RT drivers have had careers in building, engineering and other fields where good sense and smarts are required. Drivers encounter situations that need quick thinking and creativity, as well as the ability to handle people with a range of personalities and social issues.

“Of course, if I get sick, like so many Americans,  I may lose my home and savings in a couple months of being unwell.”

Then, seemingly out of the blue, COVID-19 hit. RT had to figure out how to transport clients safely and to keep drivers safe from potentially sick clients, and I suddenly realized I was a kind of an “essential worker” in a quasi-health care setting. However, when Pennsylvania used its Cares Act funding to provide an additional $3 an hour for essential and health workers making less than $20 an hour, we drivers were not included. This oversight surprised me because so much of our work is caring for physically or mentally unwell people.

I know that other healthcare workers are in far more danger than we are, but we come into contact with people who are unwell every day. We must get very close to those clients who need to be transported on their wheelchairs. We are three inches from our clients, not six feet. We are in an enclosed space for up to an hour with clients who sneeze and cough, with only a plastic shower curtain partially protecting us from the rest of the bus.

We were told to wear face masks and disinfect our buses at least once a day, but the shower curtain does not seal us away from the air our clients are breathing. Our clients are also wearing masks, but we have no idea if they are socially distancing in their everyday lives.

Another challenge has been finding safe places to use the restroom. During my training, the other drivers advised me the “safest” bathrooms to go to, but unfortunately, we must also use Sheetz and Rutter’s bathrooms, which are open to the general public. Although staff at these stores wear masks and customers are told to do so, there are always a handful who refuse to wear masks. The refusal to wear masks among some members of our community has demoralized many health care workers including me.

“As I drive around the county in January 2021 and see all the stores and restaurants that have closed, I wish we had cooperated more to protect each other from illness and found ways to keep these businesses from closing.”

I am too ornery to give up a job that provides an important service to many at-risk, poor or health-challenged people in our community. I am angry, however. One young RT client contracted COVID-19 and had to be in a medically induced coma for two weeks so that he could be on a ventilator. When he was taken off the respirator and brought out of the coma, his kidneys had failed. He must spend 12 hours a week on a dialysis machine for the rest of his life. He is too unwell to work and his future is grim. Yet some people in our community and elsewhere still won’t wear a mask to protect themselves or others from death or chronic impairment

Throughout the summer, RT kept up its procedures to keep drivers and clients safe, but because our state had such limited testing and contact tracing, I felt as if the best we could do was not really sufficient for any of us. Drivers were never tested and we had no idea if most of our clients had been tested.

As winter arrived and families gathered for the holidays, coronavirus cases and deaths grew in our county, swamping staff at Franklin County hospitals and nursing homes.

In the meantime, although we RT drivers come in daily contact with people in frail health, we have still not been tested for COVID-19. As far as I know, no drivers in Franklin County have contracted COVID-19 from work and none of us has sickened a client. Some drivers, however, have lost family members. And some of the riders I have come to know well over the past year have died from their illnesses.

As I drive around the county in January 2021 and see all the stores and restaurants that have closed, I wish we had cooperated more to protect each other from illness and found ways to keep these businesses from closing.

I do not know when I will be vaccinated so that I can live without the gnawing fear that I might make someone sick. Of course, if I get sick, like so many Americans, I may lose my home and savings in a couple months of being unwell. I can manage my own fears with stoicism, but I cannot understand how and why many people in our county would put me and my clients at such risk for illness and death.

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