Truckers risk exposure to coronavirus to deliver critical medical and food supplies

As medical professionals and public health officials work to slow the spread of the coronavirus, truck drivers are also working around-the-clock to deliver critical medical supplies, food and other essentials to hospitals and grocery stores nationwide.

Deb LaBree and her husband, Del, of Joplin, Missouri, haul vital medical supplies to hospitals. They are independent owner-operators, who own Castle Transport LLC, and are leased to Landstar. They typically run from Colorado to the East Coast.

Deb LaBree considers truckers “unsung heroes” who rally in times of crisis to get the job done, even if it means putting their health at risk.

“We got into trucking 13 years ago, and specifically the pharmaceutical division, to help people in times like this because we know they need their medication,” she told FreightWaves.

Deb LaBree said she’s not on the “panic wagon” yet but understands the importance of remaining healthy to deliver medicine to help those affected by the coronavirus, which is now a global pandemic, according to the World Health Organization.

As of Friday, more than 2,000 people have been confirmed to have the virus, resulting in 41 deaths in the U.S., according to an NBC report.

“We haul medicine that has to move no matter what,” she said. “No, we can’t quarantine ourselves 100%, but we have always been conscientious of sanitary practices — but we are even more so now.”

The LaBrees constantly wipe down the steering wheel with Clorox wipes and use hand sanitizer after using touch screens at the fuel pumps or touching other metal surfaces. They are also trying to stay more “self-contained” in their truck by eating meals they prepared at home.

“Instead of gabbing with other drivers while waiting on our paperwork, we are kind of quarantining ourselves in the truck right now,” Deb LaBree said. “Not having that face-to-face contact is lonely but necessary because we haul emergency supplies.”

Some drivers told FreightWaves they have been asked to fill out visitor health assessment forms at shippers and receivers, inquiring whether they have traveled out of the country, have flu-like systems, and if they or someone they know has been quarantined because of the coronavirus.

Drivers also reported they weren’t allowed on docks at certain facilities after new procedures were put in place this week.

Late Friday, Ingrid Brown, a 40-year trucking veteran from Zionville, North Carolina, stopped at a truck stop on her way to Florida and walked to a nearby fast food joint to grab a burger.

She said she quickly left the restaurant without her food.

“I watched this cashier take money from a customer, hand back his change then walk over and make two ice cream cones without any gloves,” Brown told FreightWaves. “I was like, ‘Nope, I can’t do that’ and walked back and ate peanut butter with a spoon in my truck.”

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges those at serious risk for contracting the airborne virus to stay home, that isn’t an option for Brown, who has miles to drive, loads to deliver and bills to pay. 

Since she was diagnosed with melanoma in 2017, she said she worries constantly about what this highly contagious virus could do to her already weakened immune system. She’s had eight surgeries to remove cancerous spots from her throat, side, face and leg in the past three years and also has battled pneumonia and pleurisy four times during that time.

The CDC urges people to keep away from others who are sick, limit close contact and avoid crowds as much as possible. However, Brown said she has no way to know if others in the supply chain or at truck stops, rest areas or fast food restaurants where she stops may unknowingly have the coronavirus. Symptoms may appear between two and 14 days after exposure, the CDC said.

“I am 100% exposed with no bubble and I don’t want to put my immune system in jeopardy,” she told FreightWaves. “Truck drivers don’t get the privilege of working from home, so we still have to interact with the public. How are we to know if they’ve traveled out of the country recently or may have come in contact with the virus or how often they wash their hands.”

Some drivers expressed sanitary concerns about food buffets and roller grills remaining open at truck stops and convenience stores until the virus is contained. Questions about truck stops’ sanitation protocols for disinfecting their showers and restrooms have also been raised.

On Friday, both Pilot Co. and TravelCenters of America issued statements about preventative measures the companies are taking to keep truck drivers and motorists from possibly contracting the coronavirus.

“We are communicating to our team members the importance of staying home when sick and will continue to follow the advice of global and local health authorities as the situation evolves,” a spokesperson at Pilot Co. told FreightWaves. 

Pilot said its procedures include consistent cleaning of dining tables and food contact surfaces using food-grade sanitizer; frequent cleaning of restrooms and commonly used areas with disinfectant; cleaning showers after each use with degreaser, disinfectant and floor cleaner; and washing guest towels separately from service towels after each use.

“In addition, we provide hand sanitizer dispensers for public use near the restrooms at our locations and have implemented a fresh cup policy for all refills including using a new cup to pour drinks into personal mugs,” the Pilot spokesperson said. 

On Friday, TravelCenters of America stated it is also increasing its cleaning frequency and will continue to use “best-in-class chemicals to disinfect and sanitize common touchpoints for employees and customers at our sites,” according to the statement on its website.

“We are continuing our focus on enhanced preventive measures and have issued best practices guidance to our employees. We are actively communicating with our teams, highlighting matters such as proper and thorough hygiene and handwashing practices, sanitation recommendations and food preparation procedures,” TA said.

Late Friday, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued a national emergency order, the first time in the agency’s history, to suspend hours-of-service (HOS) regulations for commercial vehicle drivers hauling essential coronavirus equipment and supplies in all 50 states.

Prior to the federal agency’s emergency declaration, the LaBrees worked out a driving schedule as they haul essential medical supplies.

“We’ve figured out a driving schedule and how to break up our days to make sure we are still getting adequate sleep,” she said. “We haven’t seen anything like this [nationwide suspension for HOS]  in our lifetime.”

As thousands of motor carriers and drivers gear up for some long days ahead, LaBree said she hopes they feel a sense of pride in what they are doing for the country.

“When this pandemic is over, I hope truckers that were a huge part of keeping America moving and the shelves stocked realize they have achieved hero status in my book,” she said.

Read more articles by FreightWaves’ Clarissa Hawes