Companies across the US are requiring their employees to work from home as a response to the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 123,000 people and killed more than 4,500.
But one of America’s largest and most vulnerable groups of workers — truck drivers — doesn’t have that ability. The job requires drivers to travel nationwide and come into contact with goods shipped from overseas, which could affect not only them, but those they come into contact with.
One truck driver who moves goods for Amazon said she and her husband are loading up on hand sanitizer and washing their hands at every chance.
“We travel all over the country hauling packages for Amazon and have been concerned with what we should do if it starts rapidly spreading across the nation,” she told Business Insider. “Not only are we worried about possible virus transmission from going into the different facilities, but we’re also always in and out of truck stops across the nation for fuel, food, showers, and more.”
Another truck driver has forced himself to notice small details while at truck stops — like whether or not a Dunkin’ Donuts employee is wearing gloves when they put the lid on his soda. “If they were to have a virus on their hands, can’t that travel to the lids?” he said.
Not all truckers are fretful. “I’m not concerned about the virus,” one trucker shared. “Truck driving is kind of an isolating job. You don’t come in contact with too many people from day to day.”
Social distancing doesn’t work if you’re a trucker
A Business Insider analysis found that service workers and those in jobs that lack flexibility are among those with the greatest risk of coronavirus exposure.
Unlike those who work in retail or fast food, truck drivers aren’t in close proximity to others for most of the day. But their jobs naturally require them to travel and lean on folks nationwide. They have to depend on truck-stop workers to ensure their shower booths are clean, trust fast-food employees to have scrupulous hygiene, and assume that the driver before them who sat in their seat didn’t feel feverish.
This locks truckers out of what’s called “social distancing” — encouraging people to stay at home as much as possible so the virus doesn’t spread.
History shows the tactic works. As Quartz reported today, the Spanish flu’s per-capita death toll in St. Louis was less than half of what Philadelphia experienced. Researchers attribute that to the city’s quick moves to close schools, churches, and other gathering spaces.
The companies who are asking employees to work from home and the areas that have implemented quarantines are hoping that, by quickly moving to limit people’s interactions with each other, the spread of coronavirus will ease. South Korea’s early moves to crack down on coronavirus, through encouraging working from home and providing national testing, have been in attempts to slow the infection rate in the country of more than 51 million.
38% of truck drivers do not have health insurance
But a significant chunk of the US can’t work from home, as Deutsche Bank chief economist Torsten Slok wrote in an email to investors on March 7. He highlighted truck drivers as one of the largest chunks at risk for not only catching coronavirus, but potentially spreading it to others.
Truck drivers are twice as likely as the average working American to not have health insurance, according to a 2014 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Paid sick leave is also not a common benefit across many trucking jobs.
The lack of universal healthcare and universal paid sick leave, a rarity among highly developed nations, complicates America’s attempts at social distancing, Slok suggested.
One study he cited from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research noted that employees who attended work while infected with the H1N1 swine flu caused the infection of an estimated seven million coworkers. While 90% of public-sector workers who had symptoms of H1N1 took sick leave during the 2009 through 2010 pandemic, only 66% of private-sector employees did the same.
For truckers, those problems intensify when looking at the workers’ preexisting conditions. More than half of truckers smoke cigarettes, according to the CDC. Epidemiologist Saskia Popescu, who practices at the Honor Health medical group in Arizona, previously told Business Insider that those with a history of smoking may be more vulnerable to coronavirus.
“Since COVID-19 is a respiratory disease and often causes pneumonia, having a history of smoking could increase the risk of more severe respiratory distress or pneumonia,” Popescu said.
Meanwhile, the American Diabetes Association has warned that people with diabetes should expect more complications with coronavirus should they contract it. Truckers are twice as likely as the general population to have diabetes, according to the CDC.
Long-haul truck drivers “face a constellation of interrelated risk factors for chronic disease,” the CDC found in its 2014 study. Still, some 83% of truckers thought their health to be “excellent, very good, or good” — and twice as many truckers didn’t go to the doctor in the past year than the overall adult working population.
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