For many who have been afflicted with COVID-19 in the past year and a half, symptoms linger past the two weeks of infection and quarantine.
Tiredness, brain fog, shortness of breath, pain, cough, loss of taste or smell, depression or anxiety, all characteristics of the affliction dubbed “long COVID,” could now be considered a disability under federal civil rights laws, President Joe Biden announced at the end of July.
The Americans with Disabilities Act — signed into law 31 years ago —protects people with disabilities from discrimination, according to the legislation. If physical or mental impairments listed in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or U.S. Department of Justice guidance persist and limit one or more major life activities, the document says, it could be considered a disability. To determine whether long COVID qualifies as a disability, the ADA says, patients must undergo an individualized assessment.
Dr. Mark Schueler, county health officer and physician at Johnson County Healthcare Center, said he has seen COVID-19 patients whose symptoms persist for months.
“It’s common. I have several people still on oxygen who didn't get off oxygen after COVID,” he said. “A chest X-ray looks like lung injury and doesn't get better even months later. I saw someone today and said their lungs will never be as good as they were. There’s some damage, and it’s more or less a permanent scarring of the lung from the way it looks.”
Since last March, there have been 657 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases in Johnson County as of Sept. 21. A study released earlier this year by health care nonprofit FAIR Health found that almost 25% of coronavirus patients experience at least one post-COVID condition.
The demographics of those who suffer long-term symptoms after a diagnosis is sort of “a random sampling,” Schueler said.
“In smokers, in nonsmokers; young people, old people,” he said. “It’s very hit or miss, and I don’t really have a way to predict who will experience that.”
Those who are found to have a disability due to long COVID will be subject to the same protections and modifications as other disabilities under the ADA.
Schueler said it would be difficult to evaluate neurological issues such as fatigue or mental fogginess for ADA purposes, though in instances of lung function and lung disease, it is fairly easy to determine.
One of his patients, he said, is in his mid-50s and has been reliant on oxygen since his COVID-19 diagnosis last fall.
“It’s one of the hazards you have to worry about if you get the virus,” Schueler said.