NEW ORLEANS -- It was shortly after Mardi Gras, and Robert Givens thought he had a sinus infection.
His wife, Veneshia Givens, said she believed "deep down" it was the coronavirus. Robert Givens, 51, went to the urgent care center, but doctors did not give him a coronavirus test, his wife said. Instead, they sent him home with sinus medication.
After that, he thought little more of his illness and returned to work as a longshoreman at the Port of New Orleans.
Days later, his headache worsened and his breathing labored. Then he was admitted to the intensive care unit. Weeks later, he died of the coronavirus.
Around the same time, his childhood friend and fellow longshoreman, Windell La Cour, died from the virus. Then another friend and colleague on the docks, David Page, tested positive and was out of work for weeks. The union's local president, David Magee, also contracted the virus, and spent weeks in the hospital.
"It was like a domino effect," Veneshia Givens said.
The outbreak shook the port community, and nearly caused the Port of New Orleans to shut down, local union officials said. Henry Glover, 48, who gives longshore workers in New Orleans their daily job assignments, remembers colleagues frantically calling him in the days after, refusing to go to work, worried they would be the next to get the virus and die.
Veneshia Givens was so worried that the working conditions at the port caused her husband's death that she prevented her son from going back to work as a longshoreman until the pandemic fades.
"I lost my husband," she said. "I don't want to lose my child too."
The coronavirus is surging again, and outbreaks are starting to reemerge in ports across the country. In interviews with over a dozen longshoremen, their families and maritime officials at multiple ports in the United States, all urged government officials to recognize the essential nature of longshore work and protect individuals from conditions that make it ripe for the virus to spread.
In particular, they say longshore workers should be provided rapid testing and early access to a vaccine so they can remain on the job and prevent outbreaks from shutting the nation's ports.
"We're hidden," said Kenneth Riley, president of the local longshoremen's union in Charleston, S.C. "But if you think some of the store shelves were empty as we got into this pandemic, let these ports shut down and see how empty they'll be."
Longshore work is exhausting, and often requires close contact with others. The trade is essential to the economy, with longshore workers serving as a crucial link between moving goods from a shipping vessel onto trucks and trains that send them to their final destination, experts said.
More than 95% of overseas trade for the United States flows through one of about 150 deep-water ports in the country, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
The workers at highest risk of being exposed to the virus are deep-sea longshoremen, who are primarily Black and do most of the work that requires the lifting and moving of goods, union officials noted.
Lashers, who take steel rods off containers so they can be lifted by crane operators, sweat and breathe heavily as they work in pairs side by side. Shuttle drivers, responsible for transporting their fellow longshoremen to and from either end of a dock that can stretch for miles, spend their days packed in Ford Crown Victorias and school buses with other longshoremen.
"It's very high-risk," said Gail Jackson, 45, a shuttle driver on the docks in Charleston who contracted the virus and spent weeks off the job. "There's no way for us to be 6 feet distanced."
The International Longshoremen's Association, a union that represents about 65,000 workers, has lobbied the federal government and state officials for support. In a September letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, union officials asked that longshore workers be provided personal protective equipment, sanitizer and rapid coronavirus tests, saying the officials who operate the terminals have "provided no protective equipment to our members despite COVID-19 risks."
They added that many of their local unions were trying to provide protective equipment. They said some ports, such as the one in Charleston, are spending upward of $200,000 a week to protect their workers from large-scale outbreaks on the docks that would grind work to a halt and cause significant delays in shipping goods to consumers.
"This is not sustainable," the union's president, Harold Daggett, wrote of the costs.
In May, the Transportation Department provided longshore workers with cloth facial coverings as part of its effort to donate 15.5 million masks to transportation workers. Since then, they have not provided any other protective equipment, sanitizer or rapid tests to port workers, say union officials. The transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, has been reluctant to involve the federal government in protecting transportation workers, saying in a June interview with Politico that it is a "labor-management" issue.
"The Department of Transportation does not make public health decisions, that authority lies with HHS [Department of Health and Human Services] and CDC," a department spokesperson said. "Secretary Chao and the department have consistently and strongly encouraged passengers and transportation workers follow CDC guidelines, including wearing face coverings."
Daniel Maffei, a federal maritime commissioner appointed by President Barack Obama, said if port workers were not provided vaccines in this first wave, potential outbreaks could sideline longshore workers as ports face increases in cargo volume because of the confluence of changed spending habits during the pandemic, the holiday shopping season and the continuing need for personal protective equipment.
"If longshoremen have to stay home because they're still vulnerable to covid ," Maffei said, "it's going to be a perfect storm that could jam the entire supply chain."