UHD researcher sheds light on COVID-19 impact to commercial truck drivers

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A researcher at the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is shedding light on the potential impact of COVID-19 on the trucking industry with new research.

The $700 billion industry is responsible for 71 percent of freight in the U.S. and moves nearly 3 million loads of goods across the U.S. with semi-trucks each day.

Dr. Michael Lemke, assistant professor of health and behavioral science at the UHD, says commercial truck drivers face a number of health challenges, like obesity and diabetes, which puts them at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19 and having more severe sickness.

"For a long-haul truck driver, Monday, they could be in New York, Thursday, they could be in California," Lemke said. "They can serve as pathways to spreading disease because you can have a driver pick up a load in sort of a hot zone and potentially develop the infection and be spreading it and then they're driving all the way across the country, stopping at truck stops, stopping at rest areas."

According to American Health Plans, nearly 70 percent of truck drivers have at least one serious health condition.

"If you have a driver who doesn't have any sort of support system and then they get sick, and they're out for weeks at a time, they could lose their truck. They could lose their house," Lemke said.

Lemke says these health challenges within the trucking industry combined with the COVID-19 could not only have serious consequences for commercial drivers, but it could also have substantial impacts on consumers and the economy.

"Another potential threat is the labor force itself potentially not being able to pick up, and then you could have issues with drivers, potentially long-term consequences where you have drivers that are being pushed into the industry who are maybe under qualified. They may change some laws allowing younger drivers to drive and then you could have threat to public safety on the road on top of that," Lemke said.

The CDC has its own guidelines for truck drivers navigating the pandemic. However, Lemke hopes his research will lead to more awareness and better policy strategies for keeping truck drivers safe.

"This is important for everybody because, like most people ordering on Amazon now and not going to stores, we're relying on drivers for medical supplies more than ever," Lemke said. "They're really essential to keep the country going during the pandemic, so they really deserve a lot of attention because they're so critical to everything, business and daily life."

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