(TNS) — Only three Enid, Okla., residents have so far taken the city's public transit system to go get their coronavirus vaccine at the mall, using a free service the Enid Public Transportation Authority has offered for the last two weeks.

All three were elderly women, and two requested rides last week as the Garfield County Health Department began operating a daily vaccination clinic out of what's seasonally the Spirit Store at Oakwood Mall, EPTA dispatcher Glenda Jordan said Wednesday.

All three women use wheelchairs, which Jordan said typically makes getting anywhere in town difficult. Enid's buses are equipped with hydraulic lifts, however, in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines.

There is no end date on the free service, which EPTA began two weeks ago in partnership with the Health Department, whose clinic is open 8 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. Appointments must be made ahead of time for the HD clinic at vaccinate.oklahoma.gov, and second doses can be received either 21 or 28 days later, depending on the vaccine, though appointments can be scheduled first around these.

An EPTA trip scheduled the day before costs $2, and a return to your original location is a second $2 — Enid passengers would save a total $4 on a round trip within city limits. Same-day appointments come to $5, but those aren't as common and are harder to schedule, Jordan said.

One woman called the same day as her appointment, and Jordan said she was able to get the woman a pickup time that same morning, though EPTA requires passengers to request early morning pickups before 4 p.m. the day before.

"This is a good deal we're doing here," said EPTA's other dispatcher Sherry Line. "At least the resources are there if people want to take advantage of it."

Maggie Jackson, with the county Health Department, was held up all Wednesday morning helping senior citizens with OSDH's vaccine portal website that schedules appointments.

Not only is technology a barrier for many of those over 65, but so is reliable transportation, said Jackson, the regional director of community engagement and health planning for the Oklahoma State Department of Health's district that includes Garfield County.

Jackson said a high volume of senior citizens are still trying to get appointments before the state decides to begin the next tier in phase 2 that will include citizens of any age with comorbidities.

By the Friday before last, Jackson said the county Health Department had vaccinated at least 6,500 residents before opening their daily clinic last Monday.

Jackson did not by Friday have immediately available the number of vaccinations that had taken place through the first week the daily clinic opened and was unable to be reached Saturday.

A Possible Overlap of Services

Those currently eligible to receive both doses of the vaccine — county residents 65 and older, first responders and health care workers as part of the state's roll-out phase 2 — appear to also be the same people who most regularly use the transit system.

EPTA gives around 150 to 200 rides a day to passengers who most often take rides to regular medical appointments or to jobs at Tyson Foods or No Man's Land, EPTA's general manager Mary Beth Williams said.

Many of these riders are senior adults who aren't otherwise able to get around on their own, Williams said.

"Boy, you name it, and we go there," Williams said.

As one of Oklahoma's 10 classified rural-level transit systems, EPTA last year received $45,500 in grant funding from the state Department of Transportation to be spent through September 2022, under the provision that at least half must be spent on services for the elderly and disabled.

Williams said they usually receive between $40,000 to $50,000 a year from ODOT, which she added isn't EPTA's only source of funding.

Mornings are the busiest between 6 to 8. By noon, Williams said eight or nine of the city's 15 buses are on the road at one time. Then comes EPTA's busiest time of day around 3 to 4 p.m. when people come home from appointments, school or work.

Before the COVID pandemic, the transit system had been doing "the biggest and best we've ever done," Williams said.

In fiscal year 2019-2020, the transit system reported providing 37,975 total passenger trips for 183,586 revenue miles, according to the most recent ODOT agreement city commissioners approved in October.

EPTA buses were giving between 200 to 300 rides a day, Williams said, before the daily ride counts dropped to around 100 in March 2020 when the city of Enid shut down all its own services and non-essential businesses because of the pandemic.

This figure has been rising again, though, because Williams said passengers are seeing how clean the staff, who all wear masks, are keeping the buses.

Most EPTA trips are still requested over the phone, Williams said, because their more regular elderly passengers tend to be more comfortable talking to a dispatcher than using the city's online request system, SeeClickFix.

Bus requests are among the most common Enid residents submit on SeeClickFix — 1,051 were submitted in 2019.

That request figure also fell nearly by half in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams said.

"For SeeClickFix, it's a big deal, but for us, it's not as big because we get so much through phone calls," she said.

'A Real Person Here'

Williams said they had been short four drivers but are filling those positions now. Drivers always start as part-time, and the city currently employs five full-time and 11 part-time.

Jean Funk, an EPTA driver, said when the pandemic first began with the shutdown, only she and another full-timer would work the busy day shift until 2, while another several worked evenings and the rest waited on furlough to come back to work.

Rides were limited to medical, grocery and work trips that had been cut down to essential and in-person services.

Funk was spending last Wednesday morning training a new part-time hire, Jared Ingram, who was behind the wheel. After their 14th ride, the two would head back to headquarters for biweekly staff meetings — this week, driver CPR training.

Passengers most often compliment Funk for her stops, which she eases up to so people don't feel like they're falling out of their seats.

"Being alert is the main thing," she said.

Bus drivers have maps on their tablets, but Funk said they don't usually need them — groups of streets they see like Valley Forge, Liberty and Constitution are recognizable as Enid's "Revolutionary War streets," for example. Similarly, streets in the Indian Hills neighborhood are named after Native American tribes.

"It's not like a huge city," she said. "If you know your presidents, you're in good shape."

The system has long been Enid's little secret — and Jordan, one of EPTA's dispatchers, said she didn't know why.

She said many people in Enid don't know the service starts early in the morning, at 6 a.m.; that the service operates on response request; that its dispatch office is closed Saturdays and Sundays; or that they can buy weekly ride punch cards for $20.

"We're just like a taxi, but we're not," Jordan said, which confuses people new to town looking for a regular bus system that operates on fixed routes. "New people don't know the system exists."

Williams said EPTA used to have fixed routes — which would go all the way down to Vance Air Force Base — but Enid is more spread out than an urban city and faces inclement or uncomfortable weather conditions so often that using ride requests made more sense.

That could change in the next five years, she said, once Enid's expected population increase pushes the city from ODOT's rural transit classification over to a small urban area, which currently includes Edmond, Norman and Lawton.

If there's one thing Jordan said she wanted people to know, it's the people behind the phones and the wheels.

"Once (the automated phone voice) starts talking, punch '4.' There's actually a real person here," Jordan said. "Ride a couple times, and then you can work with me."

(c)2021 the Enid News & Eagle (Enid, Okla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.