‘Long-COVID’ could eventually qualify as a disability

Long COVID disability
Photo via bandita/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

If you or someone you know has experienced post-COVID conditions—more commonly referred to as “long COVID”—after coming down with a bout of the coronavirus, good news may be on the horizon. Long COVID may soon be considered a disability, based on guidance released by the Biden administration in late July. 

Long COVID symptoms—which include fatigue, brain fog, shortness of breath, headache, chest pain, depression, anxiety, and loss of taste or smell—can be considered a disability under certain federal laws. These laws are stated in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, according to resources jointly released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Justice.

“A person with long COVID has a disability if the person’s condition or any of its symptoms is a ‘physical or mental’ impairment that ‘substantially limits’ one or more major life activities,” the guidance states. “‘Major life activities’ include a wide range of activities, such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, writing, communicating, interacting with others, and working. The term also includes the operation of a major bodily function, such as the functions of the immune system, cardiovascular system, neurological system, circulatory system, or the operation of an organ.”

The guidance also defined long COVID as a “physiological condition” that can affect one or more body systems. This can lead to people experiencing a slew of serious health issues, including damage to the lungs, heart, kidney, and brain, as well as lingering emotional and mental health issues. Damage to the circulatory system is also a possibility, which can cause poor blood flow. Under the ADA Section 504 and Section 1557, long COVID is a physical or mental impairment.

The announcement was released the same day President Joe Biden commemorated the 31st anniversary of the ADA.

The guidance is a good sign for long-haul COVID sufferers—according to researchers, around 10-30% of COVID patients develop long-term symptoms—but long COVID is not automatically recognized as a disability. With the CDC and health experts still striving to better understand the disease, an “individualized assessment” is deemed necessary to measure the impact a person’s long COVID symptoms have on their everyday life.

Once someone’s long COVID condition is qualified as a disability, they are reportedly entitled to the same protections from discrimination as any other person with a disability. Businesses or state or local governments may need to make “reasonable modifications” to the way they operate to accommodate a person’s long COVID-induced limitations. Some examples outlined in the guidance are:

  • Giving a student with “brain fog” additional time to take a test.
  • Modifying wait-in-line procedures so customers with fatigue can sit down and not lose their place in line.
  • Providing a customer with joint or muscle pain refueling assistance at a gas station.
  • Modifying a policy that allows a person who experiences regular dizziness to be accompanied by a service animal for stability.

According to the CDC, long COVID—also referred to as post-COVID, long-haul COVID, post-acute COVID-19, long-term effects of COVID, or chronic COVID—is the general term used to describe a wide range of new, returning, or ongoing health issues that can materialize four or more weeks after initial infection. These symptoms can happen to anyone who has experienced COVID-19 in the past, regardless of severity or lack of initial symptoms.

To prevent or lessen the chances of getting long COVID, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible. This advice stands even if you’ve previously had COVID-19 or have experienced a post-COVID condition.

Sources: CNN, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, WhiteHouse.gov, Time, CDC

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