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I-TEAM | COVID long-haulers’ symptoms raise questions of disability

Published: Nov. 1, 2021 at 7:33 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - A News 12 investigation is getting the attention of a U.S. government agency in Washington D.C.

It all started more than 7 months ago when our I-Team started taking a closer look at COVID long-haulers – or those left with symptoms months or even a year later. The Department of labor was watching and asked for an interview with our own Meredith Anderson.

That’s because they agreed with the evidence we uncovered about COVID’s aftermath. For some it’s not just debilitating. It could be – a disability.

When we first met Brandi Hood back in March, she was already worn out.

Brandi Hood: “Showering for me is the worst.”

Brandi Hood: “It takes everything I have.”

And our interview hadn’t even started yet.

Brandi Hood: “It is exhausting.”

Brandi tested positive for COVID in October of 2020 and had a mild case. Then came the shortness of breath, overwhelming fatigue, and heart problems. She developed digestive issues. Her hair was falling out. The list goes on…but her life as she knew it – basically stopped.

Brandi Hood: “When we spoke in March, I was I was very sick, I didn’t know that I would ever be able to return to my to my life. And I’ve gotten pretty depressed about it.”

Meredith Anderson: “You are a different person than the person we talked to a while back.”

Brandi Hood: “I feel like a different person. This is this is me. This is the person that I missed for about 10 months.”

Meredith Anderson: “I mean, you were walking the halls. It’s like nothing ever happened. And the last time we saw you, you were using a walker.”

Brandi Hood: “I’ve come a long way.”

When we sat down for this update, Brandi is now back at Screven County High School on light duty. After her short-term disability ran out, she lost her full-time job as a Spanish teacher.

Brandi Hood: “I had my dream job at my dream school, and I miss it very much. But I’m happy to be here in any capacity.”

Not every long hauler is so lucky. A recent study University of Oxford and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) found more than a third (37%) of those infected with COVID developed at least one of these core long-COVID symptoms 3-6 months after infection:

  • Abnormal breathing – 8%
  • Abdominal symptoms – 8%
  • Anxiety/depression – 15%
  • Chest/throat pain – 6%
  • Cognitive problems (‘brain fog’) – 4%
  • Fatigue – 6%
  • Headache – 5%
  • Myalgia (muscle pain) – 1.5%
  • Other pain – 7%
  • Any of the above features – 37%

The I-Team crunched the numbers and here’s what we found.

The Department of Labor estimates there are more than 161 (161.35) million people in the U.S. workforce. The CDC estimates 1 in 3 Americans have been infected with COVID. Factor in the study we just mentioned (37% of 53,783,333 is 1989833.2) and we could be looking at almost 2 million American workers dealing with long-haul symptoms.

A recent publication, however, expects that number to end up being a lot larger. Doctors warned in the New England Journal of Medicine, “We can conservatively expect more than 15 million cases of long COVID resulting from this pandemic.” Adding, “The average age of patients with long COVID is about 40, which means that the majority are in their prime working years.”

That’s a bigger number than when the I-Team first started tracking this. Even before the Delta variant hit our area, AU Health’s Chief Medical Officer told us long haul symptoms could affect our workforce.

“I would be shocked if we did not see a large number of people that end up claiming some type of a disability status because of the long-term effects of COVID,” said Dr. Philip Coule, AU Health.

Leaders in Washington D.C. requested to sit down with the I-Team AFTER our investigation into backlogged disability claims. They want to make sure local long-haulers know the Americans with Disabilities Act is on their side.

“It’s…it’s the law,” said Taryn M. Williams.

Williams is the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy. Tracie DeFreitas is the Lead Consultant for the Job Accommodation Network.

“It’s the same with long haul COVID as it is with any chronic medical condition,” said DeFreitas.

Meaning – the ADA didn’t change to include long COVID. Long COVID is already included if it is a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.“

It’s broad…and it was written that way on purpose. So was the part about what employers need to do about it.

“It’s, it’s not a one size fits all. It’s not a ‘here’s a list of these accommodations that are reasonable.’ You have to look at each situation on a case-by-case basis,” said DeFreitas.

And the government is taking COVID cases seriously. The I-Team uncovered this lawsuit – it’s the first ever filed by the EEOC about an ADA accommodation related to COVID-19 and it happened nearby – just outside Atlanta.

When a company called ISS Facility Services reopened its office in Covington after the shutdown, a woman with a lung condition wanted to continue working remotely. She specifically requested “to work from home two days per week with frequent breaks while working onsite.” The lawsuit says she submitted documentation that her “severe pulmonary disease made her high risk for contracting COVID-19.”

Her request was denied, but she alleges “other Managers were allowed to work from home.”

Shortly after, the lawsuit says she was fired in retaliation – which is illegal.

Meredith Anderson: “There may be some bosses who are thinking COVID is not real. Long haul is not real. How do we even begin to move forward if, say, you’re an employee of a company that is thinking that way?”

Taryn M. Williams: “We, at the Department of Labor know and truly understand it’s the right thing for workers and families, we think it’s the smart thing to do for our nation’s economy.

Brandi says her goal all along was to get back to work. She even asked her principal to measure the walk to her classroom.

Brandi Hood: “I think it was like 450 yards, something like that. And then I had my husband measure it out in the backyard. And that was my goal. I was gonna walk that far without a walker.”

It took her a long time, but she made it.

Brandi Hood: “That was a big deal.”

And she wants you to know…you can make it, too.

Brandi Hood: “I would encourage people to just hang in there, it does get better.”

Brandi calls COVID the gift that keeps on giving.

After our first interview with her she says she tested positive for Lyme disease and Epstein Barr virus. Her doctor believes both were dormant and COVID reactivated them in her body.

Resources available to COVID long-haulers:

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