Queens, NY – Come August, the MTA has plans to install protective barriers on buses before resuming front door service and fare collections — bus operators, however, remain dubious as COVID-19 continues to gallop across the rest of the country.
Joseph Branch is on the executive board of ATU Local 1056. For the last 22-years, he’s driven the Q5, Q85, Q17 and Q30 buses in Queens.
Branch grew up in Cambria Heights, where he would sometimes take one of those buses to get to school everyday. Today, he is happy to provide elementary and high school kids with that same service.
Despite his devotion to his job and community, however, Branch finds the MTA’s August target date for full-service bus rides worrisome. The 47-year-old has a pre-existing condition and has already survived COVID-19 once. He’s not so sure he’ll continue to be so lucky.
Two of Branch’s older sisters, as well as an uncle came down with the coronavirus at the height of the pandemic. Only one sibling survived. Both Branch’s 64-year-old sister and 86-year-old uncle who died suffered with hypertension and diabetes, respectively, and were close to or within the worst bracket for surviving the virus.
Branch’s 61-year-old surviving sibling spent three days on a ventilator.
“Since the pandemic hit, I’ve lost two people. I know the people, I’ve watched them grow old, and I know who needs help and I know who has different issues,” Branch says.
Social distancing guidelines and concerns about possibly further spreading the virus forced Branch and his family to hold a small 15-minute funeral for their deceased loved one. He was not able to attend his uncle’s funeral in South Carolina, due to his own six-day battle with COVID-19 and travel restrictions placed on New Yorkers in March.
Branch says, ”My sister had pre-existing health issues and my uncle did — so now, I have to think about these people that I carried previously [on the bus]. When you see somebody out there [on the bus route], you are glad because they were able to avoid [COVID-19] or make it [through]. But then you also think about them on the bus — what happens if someone else gets on who is coughing or asymptomatic?”
The MTA has lost more than 130 workers since the pandemic first struck. Branch has even more reason to worry: his son works for NYC Transit as a motorman.
Like too many other Americans who learned about the novel coronavirus after it broke out in China last December — Branch did not take it too seriously because the Trump administration did not present it as an urgent threat.
“I caught it and I was one of the first people at my job to catch it,” he says. “I’m the one that conducts the scheduling at the Jamaica Bus Depot. We conduct the schedules quarterly, we have about 480 bus operators and I came in contact with the one person that had it.”
Branch believes he contracted the virus from a fellow bus operator on March 16. The following day, he went to his job, but only worked a half-day because he thought he had the flu. Branch was ultimately diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 18. He is convinced taking his blood pressure medication helped save him.
“It was the toughest fight I ever had,” Branch says. “I thought I had the flu, so I put on my sweatpants, put on my covers, and thought I would wake up in the morning a new person.”
But Branch did not wake up a new man — in fact, he felt worse.
“I was so cold that I would have sat in an oven,” he says. “One night, my heart was pounding so hard that it woke me up.”
Branch also suffered from body aches, fatigue, headaches and fever. Then he lost his sense of taste and had trouble eating.
“When you look for direction from some type of authority and there is no clear direction — this is serious and it is killing people.
Branch holds Donald Trump directly responsible for his sister’s death.
“Now, I have friends and family who have elderly parents that make sure that they don’t leave the house,” he says. “[But] people are only doing it now because of the people that have already died. If my sister had that kind of awareness before she got sick, she might still be alive. She would have stayed away and stayed in the house.”
The city may have moved into Phase 3 of its reopening plans — but Branch predicts New Yorkers will soon have to be on lockdown once again.
“We are opening back up, but it is going to be short-lived until we have a vaccine,” he says.