Who are these community heroes?
They are part of our essential workforce here in the Columbia River Gorge. They are the bus drivers, dispatchers and staff who work for the five public transportation providers: Mt. Adams Transportation Service (Klickitat County), Skamania County Transit, Columbia Area Transit (CAT), the Link (Wasco County), and Sherman County Community Transit. They are community heroes and frontline workers, providing a critical public service for our communities.
“All of our local transit providers have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and Stay at Home orders by working with their county’s Emergency Operations Centers and by forming key partnerships to make sure that residents without transportation options can still get access to food, medicine, and essential services,” said Kathy Fitzpatrick, mobility manager for the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District. “The Link in Wasco County is working with St. Vincent de Paul’s shelter and the Columbia Gorge Food Bank and is also making sure that essential workers can get to work. Skamania County Community Transit has partnered with the local grocery store to deliver groceries to their high-risk residents, and is keeping their drivers busy working in the senior meals kitchen. One driver is even sewing cloth face masks for fellow drivers and their riders!”
In Klickitat County, Mt. Adams Transportation Services (MATS) is now delivering prescription orders to their most vulnerable residents. When the service was first launched, Norma Pickett, MATS operations manager, immediately ran into an issue with pharmacy corporate policies that wouldn’t allow residents to pay for their prescriptions over the phone. “Norma is never afraid to advocate strongly for our residents,” said Sharon Carter, director of senior services. “She didn’t hesitate to find the right person at the corporate office to talk to. And yes, that policy was changed immediately and we were able to start deliveries.”
On March 23, Columbia Area Transit (CAT) in Hood River County immediately responded to the Stay Home, Stay Lives directive by switching from fixed route to Dial-a-Ride services and formed partnerships with the Columbia Gorge Food Bank and the Hood River Adult Center drive-thru meal service. “We are also still providing service between Hood River and The Dalles,” said Patty Fink, executive director of CAT. “Essential workers need to get to their workplaces and some residents need to get to critical medical treatments.”
During this time when many other local organizations have had to retreat from public contact, local public transportation services are now needed more than ever. Although their office doors may be closed, there is a big hum of activity behind the scenes and on the road. In the last five weeks, the Gorge transportation providers have pivoted from operating regular transit services to focusing on pickup and delivery service of life necessities like food and medical prescriptions to residents who are sheltering in their homes.
All five transportation providers are working hard to keep their drivers and riders safe and healthy with proper face mask and glove usage and constant sterilizing cleanings of the vehicle interiors. All five are working together to prepare for a brighter future, when COVID-19 restrictions can relax and more residents will be getting back on the bus to go to work, school, and play.
But for now, “This pandemic has highlighted the first priority of public transit, which is to give people in our communities access to the resources that meet their basic needs,” said Fitzpatrick. “The bus drivers and transit staff throughout the Gorge are our community heroes who will continue to provide this critical service throughout this crisis and beyond.”