The first corona death at BVG - how safe is public transport?

Since March 2020, almost 250 workers at the company have been infected. Employees are calling for more efforts to prevent infection.

Disinfect, then drive. A BVG bus is cleaned before continuing its journey.
Disinfect, then drive. A BVG bus is cleaned before continuing its journey.dpa/Kay Nietfeld

Berlin-The notice at the Marzahn tram depot announced sad news. Sven B., a 49-year-old BVG tram driver, died on 30 December, it read. The man from Hohenschönhausen had contracted the coronavirus. He was the first BVG employee to die of Covid-19.

BVG spokesperson Petra Nelken confirmed the death. On 17 December, the tram driver went into quarantine at home because a family member had tested positive for the virus. The BVG employee's condition worsened. According to reports, he was soon admitted to hospital, where he died on 30 December.

"It was a heavy blow for the family," BVG said in a Facebook post. "We are now mourning the loss of a colleague from our ranks. Sven B. passed away from corona." 

"From what we know, the employee contracted the disease at home, outside of work," Nelken said. This is evident from the fact that the local health authority has not instructed his colleagues to quarantine.

But how is BVG dealing with the pandemic? The state-owned company employs around 15,500 people. "Measured against this, the number of corona infections at our company is low," says Nelken.

From March 2020, when the pandemic was approaching its first peak, to today, 245 BVG employees have been infected. Another 335 employees have gone into quarantine, she said.

"We currently have 21 cases of infection and another 33 BVGers are in quarantine."

Contrary to what some might expect, drivers do not make up the majority of those currently infected - although they come into contact with a lot of people.

"Currently, five bus drivers, three metro drivers and two tram drivers have corona," Nelken said.

Staff demanding more disinfection and new shift schedules

There was no indication that those affected had contracted the disease while at work, the BVG spokeswoman stressed. "We assume that the infections took place in the domestic sphere - for example at parties."

The company has taken great efforts to reduce the risk of infection. Vehicles are being cleaned more frequently than before. Cleaning materials are being distributed to the staff. BVG has begun installing glass panels in its approximately 1,500 buses to provide additional protection for drivers. "We want to be finished with this by the end of February," Nelken confirmed. Tram and underground drivers are better protected because their cabins are separated from the passenger area.

But BVG could do more, said an employee - speaking anonymously - referring to a provision in the "Sars-CoV-2 Occupational Health and Safety Guideline" put out by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. It states that "interiors of vehicles used for operational purposes should be cleaned regularly, especially when used by more than one person, each time the operator changes."

In the case of trams, the driver's area should have to be disinfected every time a new shift begins, the BVG worker demanded. "But in many cases, this doesn't happen."

What's more, drivers often switch vehicles during their shifts. "Such shifts should be minimised," the BVG worker said, even if this would increase the need for personnel.

A further criticism: "The drivers have been given gloves, but no disinfectant wipes. And they don't get enough time to do the cleaning, either."

131 deaths in New York mass transit

BVG says public transport is not an infection hotspot for either staff or passengers, an assertion suported by a study carried out by the Berlin Technical University. But the authors of the study tie their conclusions to a number of conditions: As many passengers as possible must cover their mouths and noses, and the vehicles must be well ventilated.

"If 90 per cent of the passengers wear cloth masks, the risk of infection is reduced by about 70 per cent. If 90 per cent of passengers wear FFP2 masks, it is reduced by about 95 per cent," said Professor Kai Nagel, author of the study.

The study is not the first on corona and public transport. When the Paris health authorities investigated 386 infection clusters between May and mid-July last year, they found no links to public transport. In Tokyo, no corona infection could be traced to trains. But whether the results from different countries are really comparable still has to be clarified. In New York City, more than 4,000 public transport workers tested positive and 131 deaths were recorded, the New York Times reported in early December. This much is certain: the utmost caution is still advisable.