‘Extra precautious’ and scared, SEPTA employees who survived COVID-19 return to work

Veronica Jerry

Veronica Jerry is a SEPTA employees at the Midvale bus depot who has recovered from COVID-19. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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SEPTA dispatcher Veronica Jerry recently returned to work at the authority’s Midvale Depot, after five weeks off. But the 22-year employee was not on a long vacation.

Jerry was one of at least 280 SEPTA employees to contract the novel coronavirus.

”I knew I didn’t have any underlying issues, so I knew I was okay,” she said. “It wasn’t too bad.”

The 48-year-old says she was fortunate enough to only have experienced mild symptoms. She spent the time quarantined in her Southwest Philadelphia home, where she experienced fevers, headaches, chest pains, and dizziness as well as loss of taste, smell and appetite. She was spared the dry cough and pneumonia associated with the virus. And most importantly, she was spared her life.

“First, I was down about it cause everything, everybody was passing away,” she said.

Midvale is the largest of SEPTA’s depots. Located off of Wissahickon and Roberts avenues in North Philadelphia’s Nicetown neighborhood, the 23-year-old facility spans more than 40 acres. More than 300 buses live there, about a quarter of SEPTA’s fleet. Within the sprawling property, workers clean and fix the vehicles that carry riders along 23 bus routes within the region.

Jerry works inside an office building across from an expansive bus garage. She personally knew three of the seven SEPTA employees who have died of the coronavirus. Two came from Midvale — Michael Holt, a mechanic who was a month away from 21 years on the job, and Terrence Burton, a bus operator with 18 years on the job. The third is bus operator Yolanda Woodberry, who worked out of the Frontier Depot. She spent 17 years at SEPTA.

Jerry remembers a “cordial” relationship with Burton, whom she worked with for around 15 years. She said he was a welcoming person and the two hit it off immediately.

“I miss seeing his face,” Jerry said. “He was somebody you knew we could depend on who would come to work. He came to work every day, and he was present when he got here.”

Jerry remembered Holt as a nice guy who would “help anybody out.”

“Sometimes you’d see him out in the parking lot,” she said. “Fixing somebody’s tire, changing someone’s tires, or putting brakes on or something for one of his coworkers. He has always been helpful.”

Now that she has recovered, Jerry worries about the possibility of getting COVID-19 again. Next time she might not be so lucky, she fears.

“I’ve been being extra precautious,” she said, “make sure I got my face mask. I’m cleaning my hands constantly. I always have my bleach water. I come in, I bleach everything down … I also have my hand sanitizer. Everything is right there next to me.”

Since the pandemic began, SEPTA has implemented a number of safety protocols including stepped-up cleaning of vehicles and facilities, and distribution of personal protective equipment to employees. As more employees return to work, the authority plans to use temperature screening and in-house testing to prevent further spread.

SEPTA agreed to implement the preventative measures after weeks of pressure from the union that represents authority workers, Transport Workers United Local 234. The authority and TWU are still negotiating over death benefits for the families of workers lost to COVID-19.

SEPTA’s Midvale bus depot was a hotspot for COVID-19.
SEPTA’s Midvale bus depot was a hotspot for COVID-19. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘I don’t wish it on anybody’

Meanwhile, roughly half of the 280 SEPTA employees sickened by the virus have recovered and returned to work, where masked colleagues cautiously prepare for the region’s reopening.

Bob Santos, 60, another dispatcher, is one of those people who have recovered. Santos contracted a mild case that took him out of work for more than three weeks. He suffered from “a few symptoms” the first week and then, for a week and a half, a cough that would not go away, he said. Then he had to wait to see his doctor to get the thumbs-up to come back.

“I don’t wish it on anybody,” Santos said. “Pretty much lose a whole month of your life with a mild case.”

Still, Santos considers himself lucky, considering his colleagues who lost their lives to the virus.

“Mike was a great guy,”  Santos said of Michael Holt. “He’s going to be missed.”

Rob Santos
Rob Santos is a SEPTA employees at the Midvale bus depot who has recovered from COVID-19. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

SEPTA restored transit service the week of May 17, after more than five weeks of operating on a barebones ‘lifeline schedule.” The agency has not yet announced when Regional Rail service will return to pre-pandemic levels.

But for Jerry, there is no guarantee life will ever return to a pre-pandemic normal.

“I’m quite sure it’ll never go back,” she said. “Maybe like 20 years from now.”

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