Local transit agencies get creative to make COVID vaccines more accessible

From offering free rides to hosting clinics, agencies are removing barriers for some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations

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A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine from a nurse at a vaccination site run by Foothill Transit in Covina, California. Transit agencies across the country are giving free rides to vaccine sites and some are hosting clinics in their facilities.

AP photo/Ringo Chiu

Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts
By Jenni Bergal

When Foothill Transit officials opened a new $24 million, three-level bus depot and park-and-ride garage last March in Covina, California, they figured it would get lots of use.

But about two weeks later, the pandemic hit and ridership plummeted. That left the transit agency with a lot of empty space and no one to fill it for months.

By March, the site was back on its feet—sort of. Working with the city and the Albertsons grocery chain, the transit agency turned the ground floor of its parking garage into a COVID-19 vaccination site. The transit center has hosted two Saturday clinics and has at least five more planned. Nearly 2,500 people have gotten shots.

“We wanted to have a location where riders could get vaccination access,” said Doran Barnes, Foothill Transit’s executive director. “We also wanted a location that would support the community where this transit center is located.”

Across the country, transit agencies are getting involved in vaccination efforts. Many are giving people free rides to vaccine sites via bus, train or light rail routes, or are using their paratransit fleets for door-to-door pickup. And some, such as Foothill Transit, are turning their facilities into temporary vaccine clinics.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” said Chad Chitwood, a spokesperson for the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group. “Public transit is finding the best way to help.”

In the early months of the pandemic, Chitwood said, some public transit agencies were providing rides to food banks or offering buses as Wi-Fi hot spots for students who didn’t have internet access. In recent months, they’ve pivoted to vaccines.

At least 451 public transit providers in 45 states and the District of Columbia are providing free transit to vaccination sites, according to Stewart Mader, an independent transportation policy advocate based in Hoboken, New Jersey. He has launched a campaign called VaxTransit to encourage agencies to use their buses and trains to help provide people without transportation access to vaccines.

Large and mid-sized transit agencies are doing just that, as are smaller rural services operated by municipal and county governments.

Since January, for example, VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio has been providing free rides to anyone who needs to get to a vaccination site, said Jon Gary Herrera, a senior vice president at the agency. So far, more than 1,900 passengers have used its buses or paratransit service.

“It’s the right thing for our community,” Herrera said. “And it helps us recover as well.”

When Mader launched his VaxTransit initiative in early January, he knew of only 15 transit agencies in nine states giving free vaccine rides, he said. Those numbers rose as more vaccines became available to more groups.

“The faster we get people vaccinated, the faster we can get back to normal,” said Mader, the former customer advocate for NJ Transit.

For transit agencies, which have suffered a devastating loss of riders since many people have been telecommuting or are fearful of taking buses or trains because of COVID-19, free vaccine rides are also good public relations, Mader said.

“Giving people a free ride to the vaccine can change their perception of transit,” he said. “It’s an investment in the future.”

State and Federal Help

Some states are aiding transit agencies’ vaccine assistance efforts.

In North Carolina, the departments of Transportation and Health and Human Services are distributing about $2.5 million in COVID-19 funding to transit agencies. The money is offsetting the operating costs of giving rides to and from vaccine sites.

In Ohio, the Department of Transportation is providing a total of $7 million to all 88 counties to help get the most vulnerable populations to vaccine sites. In most counties, the money will go directly to public transit agencies. In counties that don’t have such services, the funding will go to county health departments for purchased transportation.

The federal government is lending a hand as well.

In Prince George’s County, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a pilot vaccine center at a train station last week. Officials expect to be able to provide up to 3,000 shots a day as more vaccines become available.

Federal coronavirus relief money also is helping many transit agencies with their vaccination programs. The Federal Transit Administration has said the agencies can use it to pay for transportation services to vaccine clinics as well as to furnish their own facilities as sites.

Creative Thinking

Some transit agencies have been creative with the type of spaces they’re using for vaccine clinics.

In Bremerton, Washington, Kitsap Transit converted a parking lot and indoor space at an old strip mall that it used as a park-and-ride site and storage facility.

Since January, Peninsula Community Health Services, a nonprofit health agency, has used some of the space to run a mass vaccination clinic.

“It’s been a huge success,” said John Clauson, Kitsap Transit’s executive director. “Since the onset, folks there have filled up the parking lot to get vaccinated.”

As of April 7, Peninsula has given more than 18,000 shots at the site, according to its CEO, Jennifer Kreidler-Moss.

Kitsap Transit, which runs about 200 buses and five ferry routes, also is providing free door-to-door rides in paratransit vehicles to anyone who needs transportation to get their shots.

In Ohio, the Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority used its new indoor bus garage for a mass vaccine clinic last month. Five hundred people got shots.

And it isn’t just small- and medium-sized transit agencies that have launched vaccine efforts at their facilities.

In Georgia, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), the biggest transit system in the Southeast, has gotten involved. It teamed up with DeKalb County and the county health department, which set up a large vaccine site in the parking lot adjacent to MARTA’s Doraville rail station in an Atlanta suburb.

The Doraville site, which opened in mid-February, had administered nearly 13,000 shots as of April 1, according to Eric Nickens, a spokesperson for the DeKalb County Board of Health. It operates every weekday and on Saturday mornings.

MARTA also is partnering with Delta Air Lines to provide free shuttle service for the public from its College Park station to a vaccine site at the airline’s flight museum in Fulton County.

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The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority teamed with DeKalb County to set up this large vaccine site in a parking lot adjacent to its Doraville rail station in Georgia.

DeKalb County Board of Health

And the transit agency plans to expand the vaccination program to its Indian Creek rail station—which is in a lower-income area—as vaccines become more widely available, said Luz Borrero, MARTA’s chief administrative officer.

“We want to make vaccinations more accessible to low-income people,” she said. “This site is particularly important because of that.”

MARTA, which has five rail routes, 110 bus routes, and light rail and paratransit services, serves a population that is, for the most part, “economically disadvantaged,” Borrero said.

“We believe we have a role to play in ensuring that those people who are transit-dependent can access vaccination sites more easily,” she said.

‘A Lot of Logistics’

At Foothill Transit, which runs 39 bus lines and covers 22 cities in a suburban area in eastern Los Angeles County, agency head Barnes agrees that accessibility is the key.

Its Covina Transit Center, a covered open-air parking facility, was designed for commuters to drive in and catch an express bus into Los Angeles. The transit agency also was hoping to lease 4,400 square-feet of retail space in the center to a restaurant.

COVID-19 changed all that. The retail space is empty, and many commuters have been teleworking. So it made sense to convert part of the garage into a vaccine clinic, Barnes said.

“We never in our wildest dreams envisioned this facility being used for any kind of vaccination activity,” he said.

Transit officials made a deliberate decision not to make the clinic a drive-thru.

“A lot of the vaccine sites in this county are drive-thru,” Barnes said. “We made ours a walk-up location. People can walk in or come by bus or paratransit vehicle. You can get the vaccine and go about your activity.”

The transit agency coordinates more than 400 volunteers—including some of its own staffers—to perform tasks such as directing people where to park and helping them check in for appointments.

“It’s a sizeable effort. There are a lot of logistics to coordinate,” Barnes said.

His agency hopes to expand the clinics to include some weekdays, he said. Foothill Transit also has been in discussions with another health center and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to let the agencies use the transit center for more clinics.

Another possibility under discussion is putting a mobile clinic in a transit bus, taking it to communities in need and setting up small-scale vaccine events.

But as with everything else during the pandemic, plans are fluid, Barnes noted.

“I think there are going to be more changes, more pivots as we go,” he said. “We’ve been trying to shift our mission a bit and lean into this particular moment and time.”