Home U.S. Transit SystemsMBTA On riding the subways amidst a flu pandemic

On riding the subways amidst a flu pandemic

by Benjamin Kabak

In Boston, the MBTA is reminding its customers of the dangers of flu season. (Via @mbtaGM on Twitter)

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.

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Kevin Li January 11, 2013 - 6:25 am

I’m a germophobe, and I tend to never sit in the subways or hold on to anything. I’ve seen few fellow straphangers like myself. We seem to develop a good sense of balance.

D in B January 11, 2013 - 12:52 pm

Also, NEVER sit in the Homeless Hotel seats at the ends of the car for obvious reasons plus the air doesn’t move much there either.
And never touch the escalator handrails or on the stairs either unless you have bad balance.

Someone January 11, 2013 - 7:42 am

Well, I guess I’m not going to use any public bathrooms or touch any NYCS trains’ poles/sit on their seats anytime soon. I’ll just ride the subway like I surf on the waves in California.

al January 11, 2013 - 11:07 am

Surfing inside the car is ok if there is space to move your feet about, and if you know where the bumps and jostles along the way are. It also helps if the train is running along newly installed tracks.

Someone January 11, 2013 - 11:41 am

Yep, it’s actually kind of fun. I did that a couple times in the past, but not anymore.
(I meant real surfing, by the way.)

alen January 11, 2013 - 9:23 am

i sit everywhere, touch everything, don’t wash my hands too much and rarely get sick. most germs are transmitted through the air so all you crazies will still get sick.

Someone January 11, 2013 - 9:46 am

There is this thing called a mask. They already use it in Japan…

alen January 11, 2013 - 9:53 am

the flu virus is the size of a molecule. bacteria are a single cell. unless you buy special surgical quality masks, chances are the flu virus and most bacteria will get through your mask.

most times when my kids get sick from day care i don’t get it because i’ve been sick so much i’m immune to most germs.

Someone January 11, 2013 - 10:20 am

Oh? I think they already use the surgical masks in Japan, Mexico and other places with recent flu outbreaks.

alen January 11, 2013 - 10:25 am

so why is there still an outbreak if they use masks? the 1918 flu killed millions and that was before we had a subway as big as we have now

Someone January 11, 2013 - 10:46 am

That’s because they didn’t have masks this good back then.

al January 11, 2013 - 11:08 am

We had passenger trains and ocean liners.

Someone January 11, 2013 - 11:41 am

And now we have airplanes and bullet trains…

al January 11, 2013 - 11:54 am

Ocean liners took days or weeks to get to the destination. Meanwhile you’re eating and sleeping on board a vessel with hundreds or thousands of other people. Overnight trains used to be common before air travel became the norm.

SEAN January 11, 2013 - 12:02 pm

I remember several years back riding the bus to work & someone was really hacking away. I chose not to touch anything on the bus & once I got to work, I litterally scrubbed my hands for a good 5 minutes. It was all for not since I came down with the same illness 3 days later, wich really pissed me off. I guess what ever it was, had to been airborn.

Justin Samuels January 12, 2013 - 1:41 am

As Alen said, the FLU is airborne.

Someone January 12, 2013 - 5:49 pm

Yeah, but there could be other possibilities (like the common cold.)

al January 11, 2013 - 11:15 am

Copper surfaces are far better at neutralizing influenza, E. coli and MRSA than stainless steel. This is something the MTA and NYC Health Department should look into.

Someone January 11, 2013 - 11:46 am

On the outside or the inside?

al January 11, 2013 - 11:57 am

I’m referring to poles, hand holds, and handles. These are some of the infection transmission surfaces.

Someone January 11, 2013 - 12:22 pm

Wait a minute, I thought the flu was airborne.

al January 12, 2013 - 10:15 am

They can end up on surfaces that we touch. Viruses can become airborne again.

CarrollGardener January 11, 2013 - 11:48 am

Simple rule I try to live by: Hold subway bars, open doors, etc. with the left hand. Rub eyes, scratch face, pick nose only with the right. Not perfect, but a good start. And I’m convinced it helps.

Larry Littlefield January 11, 2013 - 11:51 am

Got my flu shot. If enough people did, herd immunity would be added to the individual immunity conferred by the vaccine, making it more effective.

Kai B January 11, 2013 - 12:23 pm

Being exposed to all these bacteria gives city residents a more resistant immune system versus residents of the suburbs and rural areas, right?

I could have sworn having read an article about this a couple years ago, but I can’t find it now.

Someone January 11, 2013 - 12:26 pm

Yep, the city resident’s body does become immune to all these diseases after a while.

Spendmore Wastemore January 12, 2013 - 12:49 am

And the other effect is that your immune system ratchets closer to an autoimmune hyperactive state.

It is true that living in a sterilized bubble isn’t good for you; humanity has never existed in that state. In that vein, it’s possible that keeping kids indoors too much has led to an increase in allergies, which are an auto-immune condition.

It is not true that the immune system is like muscle and gets “stronger” with exercise. That’s a hippie notion without ground in reality. It develops a memory for specific pathogens which helps you not catch the same or a functionally identical bug later. Catching bugs does not cause it to grow pecs and the ability to knock out pencil-necked Ebola virii. An immune system which is “exercised” well in excess of whatever a thousand generations of your ancestors experienced is more likely to malfunction on you.

Living in the filth of NYC it’s not likely that you will suffer from being too clean.

Someone January 12, 2013 - 5:52 pm

An immune system which is “exercised” well in excess of whatever a thousand generations of your ancestors experienced is more likely to malfunction on you.

That wasn’t what I was saying. What I’m saying is that if one gets a disease a couple times, or even once (e.g. chicken pox), the body remembers it, and you are much less likely to get the same disease for a while after. Some diseases, like the flu, evolve every season and so it is impossible to be totally immune to said disease.

JC January 17, 2013 - 5:58 am

Ever since I came to NYC 6 years ago and use the subway, I get sick 3 times a year. your theory does not work for me. The viruses mutate every year so you will get them every year and you will feel like shit.

Jeff January 11, 2013 - 2:48 pm

I think I read an article that said something to this effect, but city residents/transit riders do get sick more often: Our immunity is better, yet this is outweighed by increased exposure. The implication is that a rural visitor would be more likely to get sick after spending a week in the city than would a city dweller.

SEAN January 11, 2013 - 9:09 pm

One of the things not being discussed relates to the over use of hand sanatizers & the paranoid reaction towards germs. You see this in recent news reports calling the flu outbreak a “pandemic.” Now I wont question the seriousness of the flu, but stop with the overhiping press coverage. Just get a flu shot & take common sence steps to take care of your self.

Granted riding public transit is a place where illness can spred, but the same can be said about malls & even the work place. So be aware who & what’s around you & remember to wash hands as often as possible. One more thing, you can do everything right & it doesn’t meen you wont avoid the flu completely as luck plays a roll.

Justin Samuels January 12, 2013 - 1:39 am

Americans are highly mobile, and people go in and out of urban, rural, and suburban areas on a daily basis. I seriously doubt there’s more exposure in urban areas.

The same food distribution, postal system, and other words are in and out of every town every day..

aestrivex January 11, 2013 - 7:08 pm

I did in fact see an MBTA message this morning scrolling something about “During flu season blablabla.” Then I got on the orange line and ignored it like everyone else.

Someone January 11, 2013 - 9:22 pm

Yeah yeah, common Bostonian mentality…

Akiva January 12, 2013 - 11:55 pm

I knew someone who wore gloves everyday he took the train to school

JJ January 13, 2013 - 6:18 pm

I think it was worse last year , even though the press is talking about it more this year .
The subway’s “sneezing” hasn’t been that bad , with the exception of New Year’s , though that may have been the dreaded Irish Flu

Someone January 14, 2013 - 11:05 am

What the heck is Irish Flu? Never heard of such a disease.


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