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Earlier this month  — in less than a week — Chante and Ron Drew drove their red big-rig more than 2,000 miles, hauling items like produce and milk between the Northeast and Rust Belt to the Midwest and South.

It was during this trip, when the pair drove from Delaware to New York, that Ron began to feel sick. Still, it would take many more miles — from New York to Ohio to Kansas to Oklahoma and then to Texas — before the couple could return home to Kansas City. 

“We had to scramble because we were out on the road when all this went down,” Chante said. “So we didn’t have a chance to get personal protective equipment or hand sanitizer and all that.” 

On Monday, at the order of his doctor, Ron was tested for COVID-19. It came back positive.

The Drews are among the 1.9 million truck drivers in the U.S. who have delivered vital supplies in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which so far has infected more than 700,000 people and caused more than 30,000 deaths. And although millions across the country are ordered to stay home, most truck drivers are still on the roads. 

“We’re just as essential as a doctor and a nurse,” Ron said. “Because after watching people make a mad run for toilet paper, everyone can tell now that if we stopped moving, there’s no food.”

Ron Drew is tested for COVID-19 at a drive-thru testing station. Chante Drew/Courtesy Photo

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, trucks hauled about 63 percent of the total freight transported in the U.S. in 2017, making trucking the primary way goods are transported within the country. Because America’s supply chain hinges on the trucker workforce, drivers contracting COVID-19 could create a devastating domino effect.  

“If these truck drivers are out there getting the virus and getting ill and they can’t move, that means more people that can’t move goods and that’s something that affects the whole supply chain,” said Norita Taylor, public relations director at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), a trade organization based in Missouri that represents professional truckers. 

Coronavirus has already reached other workers in the supply chain: After workers at several meat-processing plants contracted coronavirus, many of these facilities shut down. As a result, truck drivers who would regularly pick up loads from those facilities are left to find other loads to haul. Earlier this month, employees at Kansas City, Kansas-based XPO Logistics, an international trucking company, raised concerns that the company was failing to protect its roughly 300 employees from the coronavirus. 

“We’re planning on taking two weeks off,” Chante said. “But after that, I don’t know what the loads look like coming out of Kansas City. I mean, we have no idea. We’ve already had a whole bunch of our customers have their plants shut down because of contamination.”

Andrew King, research analyst at OOIDA, said the closures of farms and factories could create a situation of having too many hands in one basket. Even with demand for items like toilet paper skyrocketing, King said overall imports are projected to be down by 15 percent for the first half of the year. To compound the issue, the trucking industry was also left out of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, preventing access to relief money.

“People are just really struggling to find freight,” King said. “Everyone’s now trying to haul the same amount… which is putting a big stress on the market right now.”

A Target delivery arrives at the Ward Parkway Center in Kansas City, Mo., last week. The driver didn’t want to give his name, but said he’s been making a lot more deliveries because of online ordering. Chase Castor/The Beacon

Longer waiting times at distribution centers have also caused disruptions in the supply chain. Taylor said this can hurt truck drivers, especially the majority of truckers who are paid by the mile instead of hourly. According to the group Trucking Watchdog, a majority of trucking companies pay between 28 and 40 cents per mile.

“If a distribution center is slower… that means that much less work for a truck driver if all his time is spent just waiting at a facility or waiting at a rest area,” Taylor said. 

The longer wait times also have implications for consumers, many of whom are still seeing empty shelves where toilet paper and hand sanitizer are supposed to be. King says this continued shortage is because of the panic buying and disruptions the coronavirus caused to the supply chain workforce, which created a backlog. 

“The detention, the loading and unloading times, have gone up because some of these places, they don’t have as many people working,” King said. “They’ve closed down parts of their operations so drivers have to wait longer in order to get the goods and then to deliver it to the stores.”

To try and speed up the delivery of essential goods, the federal government has temporarily waived the Federal Hours of Service regulations, which prohibits truck drivers from logging more than 60 hours of work over a seven-day period. In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly recently lifted weight restrictions and permitting requirements for truckers hauling medical supplies and food across the state.

But these relaxed regulations are at odds with the patchwork of local and statewide regulations enforcing social distancing. The coronavirus has robbed truck drivers of the respite of a hot, dine-in meal, said King, who recently heard from a truck driver who went a week without a hot meal on the road. Others, he said, are living off bags of chips.

Closed rest stops have also made it more difficult for truck drivers to access basic sanitation, despite public health officials stressing the importance of hand washing to protect against the virus. 

“If you’ve been driving for five or six hours, you need to stop,” Chante said. “Plus we have two dogs. I need to be able to stop and let them run around and go to the bathroom. It’s a lot harder for females to find a clean bathroom than it is for males.”

Ron and Chante Drew in front of their red semi-truck. Chante Drew/Courtesy Photo

After fears that Ron was getting pneumonia, he went to the hospital. Doctors gave a relieving all clear, and Ron is continuing to recover at home. A hospital visit was a worry for him since they don’t have health insurance. 

“Being truck drivers, we’ve not been able to afford health insurance for the last two and a half years because we got priced out of the market,” Ron said. 

Because Ron’s hospital visit was COVID-19 related, the costs will be covered under Missouri’s expanded Medicaid program for those who test positive for COVID-19. Still, a lack of health insurance is not uncommon in the trucking industry, particularly with owner-operators like the Drews. According to King, 30 percent of OOIDA members do not have health insurance. Access to workplace protections and benefits are also few and far between. 

And to make matters more stressful, Chante said stocking up on hand sanitizer and wipes has been nearly impossible. Their experience has made her concerned for other truckers, and she thinks more should prepare for the possibility of catching the virus. 

“You don’t know where you’re going to pick it up,” she said. “You could have picked it up from somebody’s pen that you shared when you’re signing your paperwork. … We stayed in the truck and we washed her hands and we tried to do as much as we could.”

Since Ron’s diagnosis, Chante has also been tested for COVID-19. The results were negative, but her doctor still recommends that she assume she has the virus, since she’s showing many of the related symptoms. 

Celisa Calacal The Beacon’s assistant editor and reporter. Follow her on Twitter or email her at celisa@thebeacon.media

Celisa Calacal is assistant editor at The Beacon, where she works with reporters on their stories, oversees social media and still gets to write.