As we enter the third year of the COVID pandemic, the landscape is looking a bit different. For those in the United States, vaccines, boosters, and medications have all been made available to help curb the threat of infection and illness. Many employees have endured their own anxiety about contracting the virus or dealt with an infection over the past two years. Now as case numbers are dipping, the focus is shifting more and more to how to help those employees who have lingering symptoms and cases of long-haul COVID.
What is long-haul COVID-19?
Long-haul COVID-19 can go by many names - Long COVID, post-COVID, chronic COVID or PASC (post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2). It is a condition marked by a continuation of symptoms that last longer than or show up four weeks after a positive diagnosis for the virus. Even mild cases of infection can cause long-haul COVID-19. According to several studies, it has been shown that nearly a third of COVID-19 patients have become long-haulers.
One particularly troubling issue with this condition is that symptoms can present as different types and in different combinations for varying lengths of time. Scientists and health experts are working to learn more about the long-term effects of COVID and what causes them.
According to the Mayo Clinic, common signs and symptoms that present in COVID long-haulers include:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Joint pain
- Chest pain
- Difficulty with memory, concentration or sleeping
- Muscle pain or headache
- Fast, pounding, or irregular heartbeat
- Loss of smell or taste
- Depression or anxiety
- Mood changes
- Dizziness when standing
- Worsened symptoms after physical or mental activities
In more severe cases, individuals can experience organ damage or autoimmune conditions lasting weeks or months after experiencing the initial COVID-19 infection. Some cases have shown long-haul COVID presenting with damage to the brain, lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys. In many cases, this multiorgan damage is related to post-infection blood clots and circulatory problems.
How many people are missing work due to long-haul COVID symptoms?
According to an analysis from the Brookings Institution, it is quite a lot! Katie Bach, a nonresident senior fellow got to work crunching the numbers and found that an equivalent of 1.6 million people are missing from the full-time workforce due to long-COVID. 1.1 million workers have stopped working full-time all together while about 2.1 million have cut back on hours. If the interpretation of the given data is reliable, that means that long-haul COVID could potentially account for 15% of the nation’s 10.6 million unfilled jobs.
And those numbers just reflect the people who are out of the office. Many employees continue to work despite struggling. Employees may be afraid of retaliation if they miss work or reveal the fact that they are sick especially if they do not consider their illness to be a disability. For many workers, their long-haul symptoms are variable and understudied so getting the correct diagnosis may be challenging.
What employers should know about long-haul COVID?
Because long-haul symptoms are so variable and can wax and wane in length and severity, there may come a time where an employee can be classified as having a disability. In July 2021 the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance stating that Long COVID could be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. There is no checklist to establish whether someone has a long-haul covid disability and not every case can be classified as a disability. The Department of Health and Human Services states that it can be a disability if it substantially limits one or more life activities. These activities may include, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, writing, communicating, or an issue with the operation of a major bodily function.
The situations in which an individual with long COVID might be substantially limited in a major life activity are diverse. Among possible examples, some include:
- A person with long COVID who has lung damage that causes shortness of breath, fatigue, and related effects is substantially limited in respiratory function, among other major life activities.
- A person with long COVID who has symptoms of intestinal pain, vomiting, and nausea that have lingered for months is substantially limited in gastrointestinal function, among other major life activities.
- A person with long COVID who experiences memory lapses and “brain fog” is substantially limited in brain function, concentrating, and/or thinking.
For employees whose condition qualifies as a disability they are entitled to all protections from discrimination that fall under the ADA and entitled to equal opportunities to participate in daily life. At work, this may mean that accommodations could be requested. Employers should consider these requests on a case-by-case basis and engage employees in an open and collaborative dialogue. Employers should not assume that there is no reasonable accommodation that would allow the employee to perform their typical job duties. Options like remote work, when possible, revised work hours, physical environment or job duty modifications can all be considerations. Additionally, employees should not be treated adversely when it comes to absenteeism or requests of accommodation.
Bach, K. (2022, March 9). Is 'long covid' worsening the labor shortage? Brookings. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from https://www.brookings.edu/research/is-long-covid-worsening-the-labor-shortage/
DOJ and HHS issue guidance on 'long covid' and disability rights under the Ada, Section 504, and Section 1557. The United States Department of Justice. (2021, August 9). Retrieved March 31, 2022, from https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/doj-and-hhs-issue-guidance-long-covid-and-disability-rights-under-ada-section-504-and-section
Mayo Clinic Health System. (2021, November 8). Post-covid syndrome: The Long Haul. Mayo Clinic Health System. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/featured-topic/post-covid-syndrome-the-long-haul
Null. (n.d.). Studies show long-haul COVID-19 afflicts 1 in 4 COVID-19 patients, regardless of severity. UC Davis News. Retrieved March 31, 2022, from https://health.ucdavis.edu/news/headlines/studies-show-long-haul-covid-19-afflicts-1-in-4-covid-19-patients-regardless-of-severity/2021/03