Don’t leave home without COVID-19 plan, sick trucker urges

Canadian truck driver Nicole Folz.

Canadian truck driver Nicole Folz began suspecting she had COVID-19 as she prepared to make her final less-than-truckload delivery in South Carolina last week, some 14 hours from home in Ontario.

The sore throat and dry cough she noticed after she crossed into the U.S. had gotten worse. A thermometer she purchased confirmed she had a fever of 101.3 on April 8. Breathing became harder, too. And she had lots of pain.

By the time she blew a tire near Washington, Pennsylvania, on her backhaul, she had a fever of 102.2. 

It got much worse from there. She required supplemental oxygen by the time she arrived at Etobicoke General Hospital in Toronto on April 10, after crossing the border and dropping off her tractor-trailer. Fluid had started to fill her lungs. 

“I never felt that sick before in my entire life,” Folz told FreightWaves from a hotel serving as a federal quarantine facility near Toronto as she recovers from a suspected — though not confirmed — COVID-19 infection. Public health nurses visit her regularly and the Red Cross provides meals.

Since the onset of symptoms — that she thought were a cold — she made three deliveries, waited 21 hours for a backhaul, and safely got her rig back to Canada while following public health protocols upon her return.

A public health official placed Folz under a mandatory isolation order after she returned to Canada. (Images: Nicole Folz)

Folz, 26, is among the thousands of truck drivers who continue to move freight between Canada and the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. No amount of personal protective equipment and precautions can eliminate the risk of infection or how and when it might hit.

“One word of advice I can give any of my fellow truck drivers: Have a plan!” Folz wrote in a 600-word Facebook post that chronicles her experience. More than 16,000 people have shared it. (“It went viral,” Folz joked.)

More than 16,000 Facebook users have shared Folz’s post about her ordeal.

Folz’s experience also offers a cautionary tale for truck drivers and carriers: Make sure everyone is on the same page.

“I want other drivers to have that conversation — be proactive — and ask the company, if I fall sick on the road, what should I do?”

Folz, like many drivers, had been keenly aware that the job exposed her to greater risk for COVID-19.

Her previous LTL run involved stops in Detroit and Chicago, areas with far more severe outbreaks. Folz had been sleeping in her truck during her returns to Canada to avoid exposing her father, who lives with her.

“It probably goes without saying, but it takes a lot of confidence to get into a truck and go across the border,” said Shawn Backle, operations manager at Folz’s carrier, Ontario-based Transport N Service.

If tests confirm Folz has COVID-19, the onset of symptoms suggest she may have gotten it while picking up medical supplies in Chicago a week earlier.

Messages ‘a clear cry for help’

Folz powered through as her symptoms worsened. She delivered her final load wearing gloves and a face shield, and slathering on copious amounts of hand sanitizer. She then waited 21 hours for her backhaul.

“I did my due diligence while protecting the health of others and myself,” Folz said.

Missing was a plan for getting Folz home despite messages and calls to her carrier and conversations with public health nurses in Canada. 

“I thought my messages were a clear cry for help,” she said.

Backle said the company is reviewing its internal procedures and that clearly there was a breakdown in communications during her trip.

“It’s saddening for this to have happened,” Backle said. “I wish we had had all the information about her situation. The help is here. The sad part with Nicole is we didn’t realize that she required help after it appeared that she had it already. There was a disconnect,” Backle said.

A clear plan of action only emerged after Folz reached out to another truck driver, Shelley Uvanile-Hesch, who also runs the Women’s Trucking Federation of Canada.

Folz Reached out to trucker Shelley Uvanile-Hesch for help. (Image: Kimberly Biback/Sharp Transportation)

Uvanile-Hesch began raising the alarm with federal and provincial officials, including Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Soon, calls started coming from officials at Transport Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

A well-coordinated effort subsequently took place to preclear Folz’s freight. She showed her passport against the window for the CBSA officer and proceeded to drop off her tractor-trailer.

From there, she drove her car straight to the federal quarantine facility. Going home would have been too risky for her father.

Ultimately, Backle said he is proud of Folz.

“I applaud her for how she handled this,” he said.

Asked how carriers and drivers should respond if a driver gets ill on the road, a spokesperson for Transport Canada pointed to a set of guidelines it released earlier in April, addressing commercial vehicle operations and COVID-19. 

“The document builds on the latest guidance developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency, and other recognized public health authorities,” Transport Canada spokesperson Simon Rivet told FreightWaves in an email.

“It offers public health information, as well as tips on disinfection, hand-washing, and self-monitoring to limit the spread of COVID-19.” 

But the guidelines do not lay out a clear protocol for a situation like the one Folz faced. 

Doctor calls for more testing of drivers

Dr. Johnathan Davids, the medical director of DriverCheck, a leading provider of drug and alcohol testing and occupational health services for Canadian trucking companies, told FreightWaves that COVID-19 is forcing difficult choices upon carriers and drivers.

“It’s all about managing risk,” he said. 

Davids said he would like to see more testing for cross-border drivers, particularly as rapid and reliable test kits become available.

“If we had more widespread testing, we’d probably be better off,” Davids said. “If you have a good objective test to know in 15-45 minutes if this person is actually clear, you can sequester and prevent widespread infections.”

It also would potentially identify asymptomatic cases before drivers hit the road.

‘I still love this job’

Folz’s room at a government-run quarantine hotel near Toronto.

Folz was still waiting for the results of her COVID test as of Friday, nearly a week later. Regardless of the result, doctors told her to expect to be retested because of a significant rate of false negatives.

She also can’t leave the quarantine facility for another week under orders from a federal public health official.

Folz has been a truck driver for only about a year. She lost her first job at Hyndman Transport in December after its corporate parent, Celadon Group, shut it down as Celadon filed for bankruptcy.

Folz plans to get back on the road after her quarantine ends — though after taking an additional week to recover.

“I still love this job,” she said.

In the meantime, she applied to receive a C$2,000 emergency monthly benefit from the federal government — less than half what she’d earn while driving.

“That barely covers my bills,” she said.