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For long-haul COVID-19 patients who can't work, the road to getting disability benefits may be rough

For some COVID-19 long-haulers, the fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath doesn't go away, causing them to not be able to work. Experts say any disability benefits case can be hard to prove and long-haul COVID is new and in some cases people didn't get a test showing they were infected.[Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]
For some COVID-19 long-haulers, the fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath doesn't go away, causing them to not be able to work. [Lisa Ryan / Ideastream Public Media]

Kristen Schaefer has a physically demanding job. She's the person who stocks Pepsi products at grocery stores and other businesses, and she's been doing the job for 20 years. 

That is, until she caught COVID-19. She didn't get better in a week or two like most people. Instead, she has symptoms of long-haul COVID, which include shortness of breathe, dizziness, and fatigue. 

The symptoms caused her to not be able to lift the heavy crates of pop, and she's now on disability benefits because she can't work. 

Schaefer isn't alone. Recent studies have shown that around 20-30 percent of people infected with COVID-19 will continue to have health problems for weeks, months, or even years after infection. And even though the omicron variant has slightly more mild symptoms for some people, the risk of long-haul COVID remains.

Many people suffering from long-haul COVID symptoms are often not able to work 8-hour days. 

Mentally, the symptoms can include a lack of concentration or trouble thinking, also called brain fog. For people working jobs that require a lot of focus, that can be debilitating. 

The physical effects could be shortness of breath, fatigue, dizziness, heart palpitations, lingering cough, and joint or muscle pain. For a lot of people with physical jobs, that weakness could cause them to not be able to carry out the basic functions of their jobs. 

Experts also say some people are also developing depression or anxiety due to their long-haul COVID symptoms.

County Medical Director Dr. Heidi Gullett is seeing these cases more often.

“In many cases, this has left people very debilitated," she said. "They’re not able to live the lives they lived before their COVID infection.”

Even children are having long-term effects from COVID-19, Gullett said. That typically appears as an inflammatory condition called MIS-C, which could affect a child’s ability to breathe, even weeks after COVID infection.

Filing for disability has its challenges

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a person who contracts COVID-19 can be deemed disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which then gives them protection from discrimination in the workplace as well.

There are different types of disability available to a person, including the social security disability insurance program, or SSDI, which is the government’s insurance program, paid for by working Ohioans' taxes. If a person hasn't been working and has few resources, they may be eligible for suplemental security income. Ohioans who have a disability might also apply through the disability insurance offered by their employer or their private insurance company, if they have it.

Schaefer was able to get short-term disability benefits through her employer, but when she filed for long-term disability, she was denied. Her symptoms, like weakness and fatigue, were hard to objectively prove, said Cleveland-based disability benefits attorney Andrew November, who represents Shaefer. 

“They had denied the case because there was no objective evidence of her limitations," November said. 

Schaefer was eventually able to prove her symptoms by doing a breathing test that showed abnormalities in her lung function, he said. The disability benefits administrator then agreed to pay out, but not everyone is able to get that proof, and then it might have to go to litigation.

How do you prove your symptoms come from COVID-19?

If a person tested positive for COVID-19, it can be used as evidence in a disability benefits case, November said, but some people never got tested. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was nearly impossible to find a test, so a lot of people who dealt with their symptoms at home just had to assume they had COVID. That's an additional challenge to getting disability benefots, November said. 

“If you’re going to present a case about fatigue, which is largely based on self-report, where did it come from? I think there’s a psychological impact with adjudicators and judges looking at these cases, that they don’t see the COVID test," he said.

November says in any disability benefits case, it can be hard to convince a judge of a disability if the disability is harder to see.

How long is long-haul COVID?

It's hard to say how long a person might be on disability due to long-haul COVID-19 symptoms, November said. 

As we see more and more people become infected with COVID-19, we’ll likely see more cases of long-haul COVID, which means potentially more disability benefit claims as people have trouble working due to their symptoms.

The virus is new, and researchers are still trying to find more information about why some people have symptoms for longer than others, and whether some COVID long-haulers will have to be on disability for the rest of their working-age lives. 

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158