The coronavirus trial awaiting fleets: Managing instances of drivers reporting symptoms on the road

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In the coming days and weeks, fleets likely could be faced with an unsettling and mostly unprecedented task: Navigating the humanitarian and logistical questions surrounding drivers reporting symptoms of, or testing positive for, the COVID-19 coronavirus while they’re on the job.

“We’re certainly trying to develop a plan for that,” said Brian Fielkow, CEO of Jetco Delivery, a roughly 130-truck fleet out of Houston, Texas, and part of the larger GTI Group out of Montreal. “It’s a breaking issue, but we understand there’s this proverbial storm at our door.”

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Though few, if any, instances of drivers reporting symptoms have surfaced so far, drivers’ inability to self-isolate, the mobile nature of the job and the need to go into public places like truck stops put them at a higher-risk of infection than those who quarantine at home.

If a driver does exhibit symptoms (difficulty breathing, chest pain or pressure, confusion, bluish lips or face) or test positive, fleets face a myriad of immediate and disconcerting challenges, including, most importantly, helping the driver find medical care, or finding a place for them to quarantine. “They can’t be stuck out there by themselves,” said Fielkow. “It’s our job to support them if that would happen.”

Secondary to helping drivers find care or quarantine are considerations around retrieving equipment and loads that might be stranded and, in accordance with CDC guidelines, notifying any employees at shippers and receivers with whom the driver may have come into contact.

Each case of a driver exhibiting symptoms or testing positive likely will present a unique set of circumstances. For instance, “if a driver’s 100 miles from home, that’s a completely different situation than if he’s 1,000 miles from home,” said Fielkow.

A few key questions to address, said Travis Vance, an attorney from the firm Fisher Phillips: “How far away from home are they? Is it feasible to get them home? Is medical treatment needed?” Fleets should try to get drivers “home and out of the truck as soon as possible,” he said, and have them “avoid interaction with customers and cargo, because [the virus] can live on surfaces for three to four days.”

If a driver reports they’re feeling too stick to drive, “you don’t want him operating anymore,” said Jack Finklea, a partner and attorney at Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hansen & Feary. If a driver does feel okay to operate, fleets could send a replacement truck to retrieve the driver’s trailer and load, and have the driver either return to a terminal to get home or find a safe place to park.

Once the truck is either returned to a terminal or left in a safe location, fleets should wait at least 24 hours – and longer, if possible – to interact with the vehicle to disinfect it, in accordance with CDC  guidelines, said Finklea.

Regarding notifying anyone that infected drivers may have interacted with, “err on the side of transparency,” said Vance. “There’s not a lot of legal guidance around this. It’s kind of uncharted territory. But it’s about doing the right thing,” he said.

Medical history is protected by federal privacy law, so fleets can’t state a driver’s name when informing those who’ve potentially been exposed without obtaining a waiver. But “you can tell a customer without identifying the person,” said Vance.

“You want to the extent that you can trace back the steps of the people the driver has come into contact with,” said Finklea. “Contact customers or facilities and let them know you had a driver in on this day at about this time who’s experiencing symptoms. Don’t identify the driver, but give them some information so they know who might need to be quarantined or tested,” he said. Likewise, any other fleet employee, such as those at terminals, need to be quarantined or tested, too.

“Retracing those steps is going to be a lengthy process,” Finklea said, “but one that’s ultimately necessary.”