With snow on the way, COVID-19 keeps some drivers out of plows

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Will COVID-19 keep you snowed in?

Usually as the first big snow of the season approaches, News 8 speaks to road crews about salt supplies or the cost of overtime. This time, thanks to the current COVID-19 surge, the main issue is the availability of snowplow drivers.

In Kent County, more drivers are out due to COVID-19 right now than at any point in the pandemic, road commission Deputy Managing Director of Operations Jerry Byrne said Monday.

Seven percent, or 11 out of 150, of drivers for the Kent County Road Commission are either out sick with COVID-19 or because they have been exposed.

Byrne said the department is managing the shortage.

“Right now, I think we’re doing OK. We’re seeing more COVID cases than I would like,” he said, adding, “One would be too many.”

Supervisors can fill in behind the wheel of a plow truck and crews from the county’s four plow barns can be shifted to where they’re needed most.

“And in a bigger picture, we can call our neighbors and if they’re not affected, we can pull in trucks from surrounding cities and counties,” Byrne added.

The new guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shortening quarantine and isolation times may help get driver get back on the road sooner.

But it has also led to a new local policy. Currently, Kent County doesn’t have a vaccine mandate. But starting Monday, drivers are required to show their vaccination status.

“So we have to gather those records and know when people are vaccinated, what type of vaccination they had and then really back up those days. So yes, it helps in one way, but it hinders it in another,” Byrne said.

If drivers test positive or were exposed but aren’t feeling sick and come to work, the county has policies in place to keep them the road by monitoring their health and limiting their contact with others.

“We need to make sure they’re symptom-free. They have to report twice a shift that they’re symptom-free. Instead of giving orders face-to-face, we’re going to give them over the phone or email,” Byrne said.

He said road commissions across the state are also comparing notes.

“We’re going to talk tomorrow to our counterparts on the other side of the state. How are you dealing with it? What are you seeing?” Byrne said. “We want it to work well, so we’re going to learn from each other on what works best.”

A spokesman for Ottawa County said its road commission is in good shape now when it comes to drivers. It has contingency plans similar to Kent’s in place if COVID-19 does take out a significant number of drivers.

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