When more than a dozen people boarded the X39 bus in Sydney’s CBD last week they were exposed to a passenger infected with COVID-19.

Key points:

  • NSW Health issued an alert on Sunday about travellers on a city bus trip on August 20
  • Mask-wearing is strongly advised but not compulsory
  • Bus drivers are appealing for people to stay vigilant and stick to guidelines

Despite attempts to enforce social distancing on public transport, everybody on board the bus subsequently was considered a close contact and required to isiolate.

Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales and adviser to the World Health Organisation, has labelled the average Sydney bus a “super-spreading environment”.

She said the problem was the lack of airflow aboard the buses, which have no windows that can open.

“It allows particles of different sizing to hang in the air,” she said.

“And we know that COVID-19 is mostly transmitted through the larger particles called droplets.”

The CBD is under alert after an outbreak linked to buses.(ABC News: James Carmody)

But smaller particles could amass in levels high enough in such an environment to also infect someone via their airways or eyes, she said.

It has left many commuters and drivers alike in fear on their daily commute.

“What goes through my mind is, ‘My god, I hope it’s not me next’, said Sydney bus driver Marta, who wished not to give her surname.

Pick your seat and cover your eyes

Professor McLaws said the safest seats on a bus would be the ones closest to the doors — where some fresh air regularly entered.

She said seats towards the rear of the bus could be the most dangerous as they would have the least amount of circulating fresh air.

Epidemiologist Professor Mary-Louise McLaws said everyone should wear masks on transport.(Supplied: UNSW)

Professor McLaws said everybody should be wearing a mask on public transport and has called for that to be made mandatory.

But she said commuters should go further and protect their eyes while riding the bus as the eyes have receptor sites that can lead to infection if exposed to the virus.

Wearing sunglasses or reading glasses was strongly recommended to mitigate the risk.

Calls for peace and quiet on buses

Professor McLaws said commuters should avoid speaking while on public transport.

She said a fabric mask might be sufficient to stop the particles excreted in someone’s breath, but talking was more likely to push particles through a mask.

“The more you speak and the louder you speak, if you cough or laugh or sing, you are pushing out more particles from deep in your lungs,” she said.

People are being “strongly recommended” to wear masks.(ABC News: James Carmody)

One of the worst culprits for spreading particles into the air were loud phone calls.

If you are on a bus and notice that people are not wearing masks, not social distancing, or someone is coughing and spluttering, Professor McLaws’s advice was to get off at the next stop and take the next bus.

An ‘unnerving’ journey is the only option for some

Jo Bush, 39, takes a bus daily from Alexandria to Botany where she works in a stained-glass studio. She said buses were becoming increasingly crowded and many people were not wearing masks.

She said when large groups of people who work together take the same bus or school children travel together the buses quickly become full.

“A lot of the time I can’t just wait for the next bus… because a lot of buses are already packed and not stopping at the bus stops,” she said.

“It is unnerving, especially when you see people who might have a cold or something and they’re not wearing a mask.”

It is the only public transport option available to Ms Bush, who does not drive.

Drivers’ fears at work

Marta has driven buses in Sydney and around the state for 17-years. But lately, she said every time she gets behind the wheel she wonders when she will see her family again.

The idea of having to isolate for 14-days if an infected person boarded her bus scares her — but not as much as the virus itself.

Signs on Sydney buses advising commuters.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

“That is just a nightmare that we don’t want to happen,” she said.

“I can’t imagine how awful that would be, apart from the fact that you now have to isolate from your family, just the idea of being isolated and being so scared.

“When you read reports of how sick people have been and how many are dying from this, it is a horrible, horrible thought that we’re out there on the front lines taking risks to move people around Sydney.”

Marta said many of her passengers did the right thing, but there were others that made her uncomfortable.

“I think at this stage there’s some people who can’t really be bothered, and I think people are sick and tired of being restricted,” she said.

“But unless they become vigilant in keeping to those restrictions and adhering to all the guidelines and the safety guidelines, there is a risk for all of us.

Mask wearing ‘strongly advised’

Calls for people to strongly consider wearing masks while on public transport were renewed yesterday, but Premier Gladys Berejiklian reiterated a concern that making the measure mandatory could lead to complacency.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said wearing masks could give people a false sense of security.(AAP: Joel Carrett)

Professor McLaws labelled that concern a “hangover” from early during the pandemic when people were discouraged from wearing masks due to a feared shortage.

“I believe our leaders got themselves into a bind where they wanted to protect the supply of medical masks for healthcare workers,” she said.

“It’s an example of why you need to be honest with the public.”

A strike by bus drivers was narrowly avoided earlier this month as the Transport Workers Union pushed to make mask wearing mandatory for passengers.


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