Trucking, Freight Industry Seek Faster Route to Covid-19 Vaccinations

Date: Tuesday, February 23, 2021
Source: Wall Street Journal

Truck drivers like Michelle Kitchin have logged thousands of miles during the pandemic to deliver food, household goods and critical medical supplies, including the Covid-19 vaccine.

Ms. Kitchin, who hauls office furniture and produce for a midsize trucking company in Byron Center, Mich., hasn’t yet been able to get the shot herself.

“I would love to,” said Ms. Kitchin, 57, who said she hasn’t contracted Covid-19 and wants to keep it that way. She wears masks “religiously,” she said, and for much of the pandemic avoided seeing family and friends “because I just didn’t know—am I carrying it? Or if they get me sick, I don’t want to spread it across the country.”

As the U.S. vaccine rollout accelerates, freight operators and transportation groups are pushing to get their workforce better access to vaccinations, arguing their operations are crucial to keep the economy running. That is thrusting truck drivers, parcel carriers and dockworkers into a heated national debate over who should get priority for the shots, as teachers, public-transit workers and other essential workers jockey for a place in vaccination lines defined by national and regional priorities.

Transport groups say logistics workers are keeping hospitals and stores stocked with critical goods and deserve priority.

The coronavirus’s impact on the front lines of distribution has been evident at the country’s ports: a recent surge of Covid-19 cases in Southern California has thinned cargo-handling crews at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, contributing to a slowdown at the gateways and congestion across U.S. supply chains.

Although transport and logistics workers are considered essential under federal recommendations for prioritizing vaccine access, many jurisdictions in setting local priorities haven’t yet made truck drivers and other logistics workers eligible. In Ms. Kitchin’s home state of Michigan, for example, freight workers can’t get the vaccine unless they are 65 and older.

Over-the-road truckers, who often spend weeks at a time hauling goods across state lines, face other hurdles as eligibility broadens. States receive doses based on their population, and some require people to live or work in a state to get vaccinated there. Shots are largely administered by local jurisdictions, but truckers don’t easily fit into operations rooted in particular places and times.

“A driver can’t just pull an 18-wheeler into a CVS parking lot, get the shot, and by the way come back three weeks later to get the second shot,” said Dan Horvath, vice president of safety policy for the American Trucking Associations. The industry group estimates there are between 500,000 and 550,000 for-hire long-haul truck drivers.

The ATA wants the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prioritize vaccine access for truck drivers, calling them “the linchpin of our nation’s entire frontline response” to the pandemic, in a Jan. 27 letter signed by 49 state trucking associations.

NATSO, a national trade group for the travel plaza and truck-stop industry, wants to set up vaccination centers at truck stops, where some operators already have medical clinics. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents independent truckers, also recommends that step.

Doing that would likely require new rules, such as setting some shots aside for interstate truckers, NATSO Chief Executive Lisa Mullings said.

“Truckers are such a specialized group,” Ms. Mullings said. “They’re outside their home state, and it’s hard to park a truck just anywhere…The way the vaccine is being distributed doesn’t take them into account.”

One way around the issues over jurisdiction would be to issue truckers and mobile workers a certificate granting them access to shots under certain conditions, said Gad Allon, a professor of management and technology focusing on supply chains at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Vaccinations of dockworkers in Southern California have started after a prolonged Covid outbreak slowed operations at seaports that handle more than a third of all containers coming into the U.S.

About 800 unionized workers at the Port of Long Beach received shots Feb. 12 at a clinic run by the city of Long Beach’s health department, a city spokeswoman said, with another roughly 2,200 appointments scheduled through Friday.

“It’s a start,” said Gene Seroka, executive director of the neighboring Port of Los Angeles.

“We’ve got 15,000 longshoremen and women, and another 85,000 that come to work here at the port every day,” Mr. Seroka said. “We offered our international cruise terminal. By my estimation we could do about 5,000 shots a day. But we need the inventory.”

Delivery workers handling the pandemic-driven surge of e-commerce packages, as well as many of the doses themselves, are also waiting for their turn at the shot.

A FedEx Corp. spokeswoman said the company “is actively working with state agencies to attempt to prioritize vaccine availability for our frontline team members,” and encouraging workers to keep track of local vaccination schedules.

Rival United Parcel Service Inc. said through a spokesman that “we strongly encourage” employees to follow guidance from public health officials and their doctors about vaccines, “and we’re sharing information with them to help them make the best decisions for themselves and their families.”

Still, there appears to be plenty of skepticism among transportation workers about the vaccines, even as industry groups press for prioritization.

A thread about the vaccine on one online trucking forum drew a mix of responses, with some people saying they had gotten the shot or were willing to do so, while a number said they distrusted vaccines or preferred to wait and see if other people developed adverse reactions.

Stefanie Christensen, vice president of human resources at Werner Enterprises Inc., a large Omaha, Neb.-based truckload carrier, said the company isn’t requiring its employees to get the shot but is providing information about eligibility and how to register. So far, only a fraction of Werner’s 9,400 drivers have received the shot, and the carrier is working with drivers to make sure they can get home for vaccination appointments.

Werner driver Bryan Shirley of Papillion, Neb., got his first shot earlier this month, after a neighbor who works at a nearby hospital told him and his wife that the facility had about 20 extra shots. They rushed over so quickly that he didn’t have time to change out of his bedroom slippers.

“I hope everyone wants to get it,” said Mr. Shirley, who is 60. “It’s not just to protect them, it’s going to protect other people…I think it will help the country.”


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