A few days ago, I was taking my usual 2 or 3 train ride to work from Brooklyn when I heard a sound emerging from one end of the subway car. It wasn’t an unnatural sound, but it was a deep, hacking sound — one that caused me to raise an eyebrow. A man, you see, was in the process of coughing up a lung or two, and he just couldn’t stop. A few passengers exchanged those knowing looks that said, “I hope this guy doesn’t have anything serious,” and we all breathed a sigh of relief when he exited the train at Wall Street.
For germaphobes, riding the subway can be a truly traumatic experience. Despite their best efforts, straphangers just aren’t clean, and subway cars aren’t tidied up more often than once every few hours if that. They aren’t sterilized or sanitized in such a way that would bring comfort to many, and with millions of riders carrying who knows what in and out of the system, the subways would spread an epidemic just as fast as they deliver us from Rego Park to Midtown. For the rest of us, we cast wary eyes upon sick passengers and try to remember to wash our hands after getting out.
Lately, although I fall into the latter category, I’ve found myself paying a bit more attention to what I touch in the subways and the people around me. It’s hard not to when tales of a flu epidemic are splashed across the front pages of our newspapers. So far, Manhattan hasn’t seen the worst of the viruses spreading across the area. Rather, Philadelphia and Boston have gotten it much worse, but it seems to be only a matter of time.
In Boston, the MBTA has started taking steps to protect its riders. BostInno’s Steve Annear has a report:
To help combat the sickness spreading, MBTA managers met with SJ Services, the contractor responsible for cleaning subway cars, and directed workers to pay extra close attention to changing out the water used for cleaning as frequently as possible, and to not re-use rags. “Transportation managers have also stressed that the cleaners always use latex gloves and focus particularly on grab bars and hand straps,” according to T Spokesman Joe Pesaturo.
Pesaturo said the MBTA also has plans to play public service announcements through the loud speakers on the subway and display messages on digital boards, reminding riders to wash their hands often with soap and water and cover their nose and mouth when sneezing.
But even with all these precautions in place, experts say it’s easy to contract the flu when clustered with congested or coughing passengers. According to the Center for Disease Control, people can catch the flu from just six-feet away. “Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs,” according to health officials from the CDC. “Less often, a person might also get the flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose.”
That’s enough to drive even those among us with the hardiest immune systems into a pandemic-inspired frenzy. But that’s always the risk we take when traveling by public transit. It’s only as clean as we make it and allow it to be.
So far, the MTA hasn’t taken any public steps to combat the spread of disease underground, but it could as conditions worsen. In the meantime, we can do each other some favors. Staying home while sick and washing up at a destination are the best approaches. The subways can spread a virus in the blink of an eye, and no one really wants to get sick.