Truck drivers have moved back into the national spotlight in a major way as the American public recognizes them for keeping freight moving during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, however, they are at risk for exposure to the virus themselves.
These are definitely scary times. But, the majority of truck drivers haven’t flinched as the nation turns its eyes toward them in these dark hours.
“We haven’t had any issues with drivers not showing up,” said one fleet manager who spoke to HDT on condition of anonymity because it's still in the process of developing a plan for what to do if drivers start showing symptoms. “We’ve had a couple instances of drivers who decided to take some of their vacation time just to limit their exposure, but no refusals or no-shows.”
Likewise, even in the aftermath of a driver testing positive, Mary Danielson, director of public affairs for U.S. Xpress, said that the majority of the fleet's drivers have been stalwart in their determination to keep moving freight. “Any pushback at all from the drivers has been very isolated,” Danielson said in response to a query from HDT. “They have been absolute heroes during this crisis, and they all understand that what they are doing is critical to the country. The majority are reporting to work and getting it done.”
One way U.S. Xpress has helped ease some of the tension surrounding the pandemic and the associated economic downturn has been to offer drivers and other U.S. Xpress employees affected a guaranteed way to pay bills should they become quarantined or sick and unable to work. “Another thing we are doing to help our drivers and office/shop workers who can’t work from home (telecommute) is to offer emergency pay of $500 per week to fully recover if they’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19,” Danielson said. “This will allow them to recover without concern of further spreading the virus. We’re doing this until further notice.”
J.B. Hunt announced on March 24 that it would be handing out a sort of hazardous duty pay by giving drivers and other employees on the front lines and fighting to keep freight moving a one-time $500 bonus.
Fleets are working hard to keep drivers informed on the latest news concerning both the virus and the economic downturn. “We’re sending drivers every bit of information we find might be helpful,” Danielson said. “We’re also taking the pressure off of them by letting them know what protections are in place should they become sick or have to care for a sick family member. We’re adjusting our protocols for cleanliness every single day and implementing new steps as they become necessary. We’re trying to keep everyone from getting it in the first place.”
“We have ordered supplies as best we can of paper towels, toilet paper, disinfectant, and gloves and are distributing them to all of our drivers and owner operators free of charge,” said John Elliott, CEO of Load1. “And we have internal policies on how to handle the situation should a driver or owner operator show signs or feel the need to self-quarantine. Luckily, we’ve not had issues as of yet.”
Simple Steps to Contain the Spead
Not getting the virus in the first place is key. Drivers are uniquely situated to both help the country in its fight to contain the COVID-19 virus – or to facilitate its spread. Drivers not only need to keep healthy for their own sake, but also have both a professional and patriotic duty to be extra cautious when it comes to preventive measures to stop the transmission of the virus.
U.S. Xpress shares the following health guidelines for its drivers and employees:
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Wash your hands frequently with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds.
- Avoid touching your face.
- Cover your mouth with tissues whenever you sneeze, and discard used tissues in the trash.
- Avoid people who are sick with respiratory symptoms.
- Clean frequently touched surfaces.
Ken Evans, the founder and CEO of Konexial, which has just launched a new GoMedRx telemedicine service providing remote access to healthcare services for truck drivers, said his team has been working on ways to provide drivers with more personal protective equipment (PPE) to help protect them from COVID-19.
“Not just our company, but our entire nation, needs to be doing everything we can to protect truck drivers,” Evans said. “We are at the point where truck drivers having PPE is just as important has healthcare workers in hospitals having that gear. These items are in short supply right now. But I am calling on fleets, the trucking industry and the federal government to work together in a way to PPE to drivers. Simple, day-to-day items like masks, face protectors and gloves can play a major role in helping to contain the spread of this virus.”
In a Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance webinar on March 25, Bill Reese, director of CVSA's Cooperative Hazardous Materials Enforcement Development Program, advised that drivers wear disposable gloves during loading, unloading, fueling, etc., and change them after each use.
However, it's easier said than done to get those supplies for drivers. Fenn Church, president of Birmingham, Alabam-based Church Transportation, told HDT that his fleet is limiting shipping into heavily infected areas at this time because drivers don't have the proper protective gear and clothing. "We have been unable to find anything, so we are restricting areas like New York until we are able to be equipped properly."
Taking the Pandemic Seriously
Even though the COVID-19 virus is in the United States (as of this writing, there were 60,836 confirmed cases in the country, and 838 deaths, according to MSNBC) the goal now is to try and contain its spread and keep it from infecting millions of Americans. The goal is to try to keep the number of new infection cases as low as possible, while buying time to give medical researchers the opportunity to develop a vaccine that will either prevent, cure or mitigate the severity of the illness.
Medical researchers say it is likely that many Americans will eventually contract the virus before a vaccine is ready. It's especially dangerous to the very young, the very old, or people with compromised immune systems. Although many younger, healthy, people recover with no life-threatening consequences, that doesn't mean they can ignore the deadly potential of the disease.
“This is absolutely not a hoax,” cautioned Jonathan Wiesen, M.D., a pulmonary and respiratory physician who is founder and chief medical officer, MediOrbis, a multi-specialty telemedicine and telehealth company. “It is incredibly easy to transmit this virus. And even if only a relatively small percentage of the American people contract this critical illness, it has the potential to cause horrible trauma and overwhelm our medical system. On top of that, this virus is infecting young, healthy, people at a rate that is frightening to see.”
The main problem with COVID-19, Wiesen stressed, is the long latency of the disease – the period of time before an infected person begins to show symptoms that indicate they are sick. “This disease is not as severe as the H1N1 strain of influenza that threatened the U.S. in 2009,” he said. “But COVID-19 is massively easier to spread than H1N1, and the potential impact on our healthcare system could be catastrophic if we do not work to contain it now.”
“It is really important today – just as it was 102 years ago during the Spanish flu epidemic – to practice good personal hygiene,” he stressed. “Make sure you prevent the spread of the infection to the extent that you can by not shaking hands, and washing your hands religiously and often.”
New Technologies to Help Sick Drivers
No matter how careful we all are, it is inescapable that some drivers are going to fall ill with COVID-19.
On March 25, U.S. Xpress President and CEO Eric Fuller confirmed that the fleet had a driver operating out of its Markham, Illinois, facility test positive for COVID-19. Fuller noted that U.S. Xpress has since taken firm measures to disinfect that facility while allowing many employees to work remotely during the outbreak.
Some of those drivers will be far away from loved ones and the comfort of home when it happens. What then?
“I’ve ridden out the flu in the back of a sleeper,” says Bob Stanton, a driver for Heartland Express and a driver sleep/wellness advocate with the group Truckers for a Cause. “And I don’t even want to imagine how miserable it would be to have to battle COVID-19 alone in a truck far from home.”
The first thing you need to know is what to look for as signs of a COVID-19 infection. The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) breaks this down into two distinct phases: early onset symptoms and more dire emergency symptoms.
According to the CDC, early onset symptoms, which may appear two – 14 days after exposure to an already-infected person, include:
- A sudden loss of smell, or a marked change in the way foods taste.
- Shortness of breath.
Given the current shortage of testing kits, and the already stressed nature of hospitals and other medical facilities, however, the CDC does not recommend seeking testing or medical attention unless the follow, more severe, COVID-19 symptoms appear:
- Trouble breathing.
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest.
- New confusion or inability to arouse out of bed.
- Bluish lips or face.
But what can drivers do if those severe symptoms hit while they're parked at a truck stop in Tucumcari, New Mexico, 800 miles from home? That’s where things get tricky. But it is a vital issue that a lot of concerned parties are currently working on.
“We’re developing our protocol for an infected driver as we speak,” a fleet executive who requested anonymity for this story told HDT. “The backbone of it is the same as it is for any other employee – isolate the employee, get them home or to a medical facility if necessary, decontaminate their area, and quarantine those who have been in close contact. That’s simple enough for a local driver who, in most cases, will be able to get back to the terminal. When a driver is out on the road, there are so many variables. Is there any distance they can safely travel? Do they have access to medical care close by? How will they get food or use restroom facilities without infecting others? I hope we don’t encounter it because no one has a good solution yet. You can’t get them home but you can’t leave them out there. What are you supposed to do? That’s a human being in that truck. A person with family and friends who love them.”
To help truckers prepare beforehand in the case of illness, Stanton has been working with Truckers for a Cause to set up a national “buddy system” for drivers to check up on one another daily. The beauty of this approach, he said, is that any fleet or owner-operator can easily implement a similar system on their own.
“The way this works is simple,” Stanton said. “Somebody simply calls on you a couple of times a day. And you call someone else a couple of times a day. And if you get sick and have to self-isolate somewhere with COVID-19 and don’t answer those calls, your buddy informs local authorities as to where you are. We ask that drivers hide a key outside their truck, and make sure their buddy knows where it is. That way the authorities can get in if you’re incapacitated to check on you without breaking out a window.”
Some truck stops around the country have medical service facilities in them. If you’re fortunate enough to be at such a location – and the facility isn’t already swamped with sick patients – then that’s the obvious plan of action.
But a new technology, one fast-tracked by President Trump during his March 17 address from the Oval Office on the Coronavirus pandemic, can help drivers who are virtually anywhere get medical attention.
“Telemedicine gives drivers access to a 24/7 access to a physician anywhere in the country,” Wiesen explained. “Getting medical attention is now as easy as accessing an app on your phone or simply making a phone call to a service like the MediOrbis.”
“We think of telemedicine as Netflix for doctors,” said Evans. “When a sick driver calls GoMedR or accesses our smartphone app, we guarantee they will be called back by a local doctor in that area in under two hours."
This is not a technology you want to use for major medical emergencies, Evans said. "If you’re having, say, a heart attack, you want to call local 911 for immediate paramedic help. But with telemedicine, you can either talk to a doctor or even get a video evaluation using Facetime or another video chat service to get a diagnosis and even a prescription from a local pharmacy.”
In the event that a telemedicine healthcare expert determines that a driver likely has COVID-19, both Wiesen and Evans say they will immediately begin working with local authorities and hospitals to keep that person into the healthcare system, tested and the care they need to recover.
So there is good news for drivers out there facing the COVID-19 outbreak on their own. Both modern technology, fellow humans, and a good, old-fashioned dose of common sense combined can help them stem the outbreak, stay healthy, and find help if the worst happens.
HDT Editor in Chief Deborah Lockridge contributed to this story.