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RTS recalibrates to bus babies to doctors’ visits 

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Lakeyshia Williams had scheduled the doctor’s check-up for her 8-month old son, Dareem, long before the coronavirus outbreak. But as the appointment neared, and after her car broke down and she found herself without transportation, she was hesitant.

“I told them I wasn’t bringing him because of the virus,” the 36-year-old mother said. “I wouldn’t have taken him on the bus, to be honest with you. Too many people.”

Ridership on Regional Transit Services buses has plummeted during the health crisis, but Williams’ concern was justifiable — public transit in a pandemic is no place for an infant.

By bus, the ride from their home in Greece to Dareem’s appointment at Golisano Children’s Hospital would have taken more than an hour and caused many more hours of worry, or worse.

“If I had to take the bus, I probably would have rescheduled it or found another way,” Williams said.

She didn’t have to find another way, though, because the bus service and her doctors found it for her.
Lakeyshia Williams, right, holds her 8-month-old son, Dareem, as nurse practitioner Jamie Miller examines him. - PHOTO PROVIDED BY URMC
  • Lakeyshia Williams, right, holds her 8-month-old son, Dareem, as nurse practitioner Jamie Miller examines him.
In a remarkable display of collaboration and unprecedented redeployment of public resources, Regional Transit Service has begun using its fleet of 53 small buses to shuttle parents and their babies who are without transportation to their so-called “well-child” appointments for free.

Doctors at the University of Rochester Medical Center who helped broker the arrangement anticipated that RTS would service up to 500 children over the next month who risked missing their check-ups because getting to them would have required them to take a public bus.

To meet the demand, RTS has repurposed its RTS Access vehicles — small, van-like buses that typically provide curb-to-curb service for public transit passengers with disabilities. Like much of the RTS-riding community, however, those passengers are mostly now forgoing leaving home, thereby relegating the fleet to standby.
An RTS Access bus.
  • An RTS Access bus.

“We were very concerned for families who rely on public transportation to say to them, ‘These are essential visits,’ and then have them get on the bus where they might have more exposures to coronavirus,” said Dr. Laura Shipley, a vice chair in the Department of Pediatrics at Golisano Children's Hospital.

Well-child visits are critical to tracking a baby’s growth and development. It is at these appointments that children receive their immunizations, are screened for things like lead and bilirubin levels, have their weight and height charted, and hearing and vision tested. 

One toll of coronavirus that has yet to be effectively measured is how the combination of crowded hospitals, overtaxed ambulance systems, and a population fearful to leave the safety of their homes has contributed to deaths or illnesses that could have been prevented.

An analysis of national and New York City health data by The New York Times recently found that there was a rise in the city in deaths among people who suffered from heart attacks, strokes, and other ailments during the first month of the outbreak.

“What we really wanted to make sure is to prevent in this pandemic a new health crisis,” Shipley said.

Recipients of the service, according to the doctors, are the most vulnerable children under the age of 2 whose parents rely on health providers whose practices meet the state’s “safety net” definition, meaning they care for a large percentage of poor patients.

That designation covers 10 different practices sites in Monroe County, including URMC, Rochester Regional Health System, and federally-qualified health centers like Jordan Health Center.

Cynthia Korpal, the director of care coordination in pediatrics at Golisano Children’s Hospital, explained that each of these sites already had administrators whose jobs included combing through scheduled appointments, determining which patients required transportation, and furnishing them with a ride. That ride, she said, was typically a free bus pass or cab paid for by Medicaid.

“From an organizational and logistical standpoint, this is something we already know how to do,” Korpal said. “What was unique was we had to do it differently and look for another option because families are not getting on the regular bus due to Covid. RTS was our other option.”

The arrangement is now into its second full week and came to fruition about a month ago in a daily conference call held between leaders of a variety of sectors in the greater Rochester community — elected officials, heads of hospitals, executives of large charities, and the like. 
click to enlarge RGRTA CEO Bill Carpenter - FILE PHOTO
  • RGRTA CEO Bill Carpenter

On the call was Bill Carpenter, the CEO of Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority, the agency that oversees RTS and bus services in neighboring counties. When he heard there was a transportation need he could fill, he and others on the call said, he volunteered the fleet of RTS Access buses.

The Federal Transit Administration regulates some operations of federally-funded public transportation agencies like RGRTA. But the FTA has announced that it will consider all operational expenses of agencies after January 20 to be in response to economic or other conditions caused by the pandemic.

“It has specific guidance for these types of events and the ability for us to serve the community in any way needed is a flexible use of federal funds and our system,” Carpenter said.

“This is very easy for us to do,” he added. “It’s one patient with their children at a time getting to and from the doctor’s office. It’s great collaboration, but I’m just joyful to see this work and seeing what difference it will make.”

Williams, who was the first passenger to use the service, said she was grateful for it.

Heather Brown, 28, who took an RTS shuttle with her 5-month old twins, Zen and Shekinah, recently, said the ride was comfortable and that having the option put her at ease. A traditional bus ride from her Rochester home to the pediatrician would have taken an hour or more, she said.

“Then all the people would be hacking and coughing and I would be folding the stroller, that would have been . . .” she trailed off into an audible sigh. “No, I really appreciated the ride.”

David Andreatta is CITY’s editor. He can be reached at
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