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On the road, few options for truck drivers to get vaccinated

Anthony Tuttle

Long-haul truck drivers are among the nation’s essential workers, but finding time to get the vaccine is difficult when you are traveling across the country daily to deliver critical items.

There has not been any data on how many commercial drivers have been vaccinated so far, but industry leaders have called for state and federal governments to make rest stops and travel centers vaccination sites.

A Question Of Quarantines

Anthony Tuttle is based in Dryden, in Tompkins County, where his wife and sons live. Most of the time, though, he is on the road. During an interview earlier this spring, he was driving through Indiana on his way to Georgia.

Tuttle works 14-hour days hauling supplies across the South and Midwest, getting home to his family every other weekend. This year, he got to bring his sons on a couple of runs. They did remote schooling from the truck cab.

Tuttle went home in March and scheduled an appointment to get the COVID-19 vaccine. When he got to the state-run site in Johnson City, things got a little hairy.

He said staff at the site asked him if he had traveled outside New York in the last 10 days.

“The lady in front of me says ‘No’, and I’m like, ‘Of course I have,’” Tuttle recalled. “They looked at me cross, and I said, ‘I’m a truck driver. Of course I have.’”

At the time, New York still required quarantines for anyone traveling domestically outside neighboring states, like Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

WSKG asked the state Department of Health how they train staff to handle situations when a person who has been traveling comes to get a shot. A spokesperson sent back a link to the state’s general vaccine distribution website and its most recent travel guidance.

According to that travel guidance, as of April 10, those quarantines are no longer required, but they are recommended.

Tuttle, whose appointment was before that updated guidance, was told to wait outside while staff at the vaccine site figured out what to do. He said he had a bad feeling when someone from the National Guard approached, so he hit record on his phone.

“He was trying to tell me over and over that nobody is exempt to quarantine rules,” Tuttle said. “But I was turning around and saying, ‘Since the start of the pandemic commercial truck drivers have been given an exemption for the quarantining rules so we can perform our job and keep the economy going.’”

“Nobody Seemed To Have Any Clue”

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a domestic travel advisory in March 2020, it made clear that the advisory did not apply to people who work in critical infrastructure roles, including trucking.

WSKG reached out to see if that guidance had changed. The CDC did not immediately respond.

After some back and forth at the vaccine site, the staff decided to give Tuttle his shot in his car, but he worried what might happen if other truck drivers run into the same problem.

Tuttle said he called the state to ask for more information, hoping he could help.

“Nobody seemed to have any clue who to even talk to with a concern about, ‘How are we going to handle these situations?’” he said.

“Obviously, that location had never handled a truck driver yet, and how are they going to do it going forward?” Tuttle continued. “Because there’s a lot of us.”

Even with quarantine requirements lifted and eligibility expanded to all people 16 and older, for drivers, getting the vaccine has not been easy. Tuttle said his truck is too large to fit at a typical testing or vaccination site. Drivers travel on tight schedules, leaving them without a lot of time to book an appointment.

Tuttle said clinics at truck stops designated for truckers could eliminate some barriers.

“Seeing as we travel so much, they really should want us to have them,” he said. “Now that J&J’s been approved, I’m surprised they’re not sending vans to weigh stations or rest areas and putting up signs to say, ‘Truck drivers, stop here and get your one-shot vaccine. One-shot and go.’”

Credit Jillian Forstadt / WSKG
A driver cleans his truck at the TravelCenters of America truck stop in Binghamton.

Last month, North Dakota announced an initiative to vaccinate all truck drivers crossing the state’s border with Manitoba, in Canada. It is expected to help between 2,000 and 4,000 drivers get the vaccine. A truck stop in Iowa will do the same next week, offering both Pfizer and the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

In a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky in February, the American Trucking Association, National Association of Truck Stop Owners and other industry leaders called designating truck stops as mobile vaccination sites for drivers and employees nationwide.

The barriers truck drivers face, they said, include proof of residency requirements to receive a vaccine in many states.

“Truck drivers should be allowed to receive a vaccine in a state other than that within which they reside due to their length of time on the road and away from home,” the group wrote jointly. “Truck drivers also should be allowed to receive their second vaccination at a different truckstop location as it is improbable that they would have the ability to return to the primary vaccination site on a specific date or time.”

But in New York, there haven’t been any efforts to do that.

Far From Home

Jeff Davey stopped at the TA TravelCenter in Binghamton in late April. He carries food products and was in the middle of his usual five-week run through the Northeast, 900 miles from his home in Alabama.

Davey said one of his friends just got the vaccine. That friend was able to go home to Ohio, and three weeks later made sure to get there again for the second dose.

“For me, it’s a little harder. It’s a 900-mile drive to get home. It takes a week to get there and a week to get back,” Davey said. “If I got it, I’d basically have to sit at home for three weeks and wait for the second round.”

That would mean three weeks without pay, and Davey’s already hesitant about feeling sick on the road from any of the vaccine’s side effects.

“I don’t mean to sound selfish like that, but at the same time, I deal with a lot of stuff out here,” he explained. “Vaccination is one of them I don’t want to deal with because if I get sick, I don’t get to drive. If I don’t drive, I don’t make no money.”

Davey has his wife and five kids at home to provide for, so he just “keeps on driving,” even when sick. But like the rest of the country, many stops on the road have been closed because of the pandemic.

“It has been miserable, to be honest. Trying to get food at truck stops, you can’t get it because the restaurants are all closed,” Davey said. “They’re closing the showers down. I’ve been to a few places where they won’t even let me in because I’ve got an out-of-state license.”

If Davey were to report COVID-19 symptoms, he said the company he hauls for would require him to pull over and quarantine for 14 days in his truck, alone.

“I don’t want to quarantine by myself in a truck for 14 days with no food, bathroom, shower,” he said. “I don’t want none of that. I couldn’t do it.”

Beyond The Wait-And-See Approach

Davey said he will get the vaccine if it is mandated, but he wants to first watch how others react. His wife works in health care and just got her first dose.

“I want to wait and see how she does and then play it by ear as we go forward,” Davey said.

There were also a lot of commerical drivers coming through the travel center last month, however, saying they have made up their minds: they are not getting the vaccine.

Jeff Ayres, of Endicott, was one of them. He hauls throughout the northeast.

“It’s partially because it’s one of those things the government is trying to mandate again, trying to tell you you really need to do it, have to do it,” Ayres said. “That’s my own feeling. My one sister thinks I’m nuts, and my other sister is like ‘Yeah, I’m not getting mine either,’ and she works for a doctor’s office.”

Credit Sarah Gager / WSKG
Truck drivers were deemed a part of critical infrastructure services during the pandemic, exempt from certain self-quarantine advisories.

No state has mandated vaccination. Neither has the federal government. However, some employers and universities are requiring it.

Ayres said he felt safest in his truck. For the most part, it has been easy to social distance on the road.

“There’s my world. I’m in and out of it, and just like here, I come in, I use the bathroom, I get my paperwork and I go,” Ayres added. “Everything I need is in the truck, or I bring it from home.”

The CDC maintains that vaccination is the best way to protect against COVID-19, paired with social distancing and wearing masks.

Skepticism Across The Industry

Tuttle, the driver from Tompkins County, said he meets a lot of drivers while on the job. He said at least a quarter of them, by his estimates, are skeptical of the vaccine.

“We’re a huge, diverse group, but we’re a huge, diverse group who are probably among the most skeptical people in the country,” Tuttle said. “I think it’s mostly because we get handed such a hard hand at all times.”

The trucking industry is heavily regulated. Tuttle, who worked as a trainer for commercial drivers for several years, said a lot of drivers don’t want what appears to be another legal requirement.

It is the kind of gut feeling vaccine hesitancy studies have shown is more challenging to address. A 2017 study by a group of psychologists and epidemiologists found links between vaccine skepticism and people who place a moral emphasis on individual rights.

As President Biden and state and local leaders shift their vaccine strategy away from mass vaccination sites and toward trusted people, like doctors, Tuttle said doses should also go to people on the road.

“That would be the best way to get those guys that can’t do it,” Tuttle said.

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