Is Long COVID a Disability?

Even a mild case of COVID-19 can cause long COVID. "It is estimated that anywhere from 10% to 30% of patients might experience long COVID after recovering—even if they weren’t very sick in the first place." ~ What doctors wish patients knew about long COVID, American Medical Association

Long COVID or post-COVID-19 condition has been officially defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as "Post-COVID-19 condition occurs in individuals with a history of probable or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection, usually 3 months from the onset of COVID-19 with symptoms that last for at least 2 months and cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis."

When post-COVID-19 condition began to emerge, there was a lack of awareness among the public and the medical community therefore people with persistent symptoms were not getting the medical attention they needed. As researchers began conducting studies to determine the proportion of people with these persistent symptoms, it became obvious that a standardized definition was required to remove inconsistencies in protocols by research groups.

The Delphi method protocol was used by the WHO to standardize the definition. The Delphi method is "the process of gathering a panel of experts and engaging in several rounds of questions about how to make certain business decisions or solve an organizational problem." ~ Delphi Method: Definition and How To Conduct It, Indeed.com

"A salient feature of this definition of post-COVID-19 is that the WHO panel was more representative of the global community, comprising participants from middle and low-income nations. Moreover, the WHO group included stakeholders, such as patient groups, whose opinions have often been overlooked while formulating previous definitions of post-COVID-19." ~ WHO issues clinical case definition of long COVID

What Are the Symptoms of Long COVID?

Most people who get COVID-19 recover completely within a few weeks. But some people continue to experience symptoms even after recovery even if they had a mild case. These post-COVID-19 conditions are considered to be "effects of COVID-19 that persist for more than four weeks after initial diagnosis of the COVID-19 virus." ~ COVID-19 (coronavirus): Long-term effects, The Mayo Clinic

The post-COVID-19 conditions can include the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Cough
  • Joint pain
  • Chest pain
  • Memory, concentration, or sleep problems
  • Muscle pain or headache
  • Fast or pounding heartbeat
  • Loss of smell or taste
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Fever
  • Dizziness when you stand
  • Worsened symptoms after physical or mental activities

Is Long COVID considered a disability?

The Biden administration along with the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice agree “long COVID can be a disability under Titles II (state and local government) and III (public accommodations) of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),3  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504),4  and Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Section 1557)."

According to the ADA, Section 508 and Section 15587, a person with a disability is "an individual with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual ("actual disability"); a person with a record of such an impairment ("record of"); or a person who is regarded as having such an impairment ("regarded as").   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."

Long COVID can be responsible for the following physical and/or mental impairments:

  • Lung damage
  • Heart damage, including inflammation of the heart muscle
  • Kidney damage
  • Neurological damage
  • Damage to the circulatory system resulting in poor blood flow
  • Lingering emotional illness and other mental health conditions

Long COVID can substantially limit a major life activity. For example, "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."

So what rights do people have under the ADA, Section 504, and Section 1557 if their Long COVID qualifies as a disability?

Everyone with Long COVID that qualifies as a disability is "entitled to the same protections from discrimination as any other person with a disability under the ADA, Section 504, and Section 1557. Put simply, they are entitled to full and equal opportunities to participate in and enjoy all aspects of civic and commercial life."

Resources

Maggie Vaughan, CPACC
~ friend of DubBot, A11Y practitioner in higher ed