Emergency room nurse Louise McLellan recalls her life prior to contracting COVID-19 in March: She liked to kayak with her husband and make her signature cookie – the peanut butter explosion – to bring to work the next day.
Ten months later, McLellan, 53, still hasn’t fully recovered. She struggles to bake, and kayaking is out of the question because of lingering lung problems that leave her out of breath. That made it difficult to perform her job when she tried returning to work in June.
“I lasted two hours,” she recalls.
The physical demands of an emergency room nurse were too taxing to given her long-haul symptoms, she says. And when she asked to switch to a desk job, her efforts went nowhere. In the end, McLellan went on short-term disability.
She is thankful that she started a new job in November doing clinical research, which allows her to work from home for part of the week. Even so, she says she’s often exhausted after the workday.
McLellan and other COVID-19 long-haulers told USA TODAY that their ongoing symptoms – lingering anywhere from six to 10 months after becoming stricken with the disease – have made it difficult to resume their careers. COVID-19 long-haulers typically continue to experience symptoms for several weeks to multiple months after their initial infection, even though they test negative for the virus, according to University of California, Davis Health.
COVID-19 symptoms prevent work
While some COVID-19 sufferers say they’ve received support from employers, others have struggled to receive accommodations. In some cases, long-haulers said they’re still unable to return to their jobs almost a year after contracting the disease.
Their ranks are growing. While there’s no definitive number of long-haulers in the U.S., a publication in the British Medical Journal estimated that 10% of people who contract the coronavirus suffer from prolonged illness, based on a study of U.K. residents with coronavirus. Given that the U.S. has recorded about 24 million cases as of Jan. 17, that could indicate as many as 2.4 million people are now dealing with the long-term health effects of COVID-19.
About six months after contracting the disease, about half of COVID-19 long-haulers required a reduced work schedule, while another 20% weren’t working at all, according to a recent survey of more than 3,700 patients with long-term symptoms. In other words, the majority of COVID-19 long-haulers hadn’t returned to their pre-COVID-19 work activities half a year following their initial illness.
“If you aren’t working at a desk job from home, you aren’t going to be working at all – it’s just not in the cards,” says Charlie McCone, 31, of San Francisco, who became ill with COVID-19 in March and continues to struggle with exhaustion and other symptoms. “The implications of people being out of work for six months to one year – that has enormous implications for our country.”
McCone, who said he would run 10 miles a week prior to his illness but now struggles to walk 10 minutes a day, said he continues to work in his job in marketing for a nonprofit. But he’s used up his sick time and now needs to apply for disability because of the “brutal” physical impact of long-term COVID-19. “This situation is a nightmare,” he adds.
COVID-19 shows lack of worker aid
The ongoing struggles of COVID-19 long-haulers underscore the deficiencies in the nation’s protections for workers, said Erika Moritsugu, vice president at the National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonprofit that advocates for paid sick days and family leave. In response to the pandemic, Congress last year provided up to two weeks of paid sick leave and an additional 10 weeks of paid expanded family and medical leave – but those provisions expired on Dec. 31 and had significant loopholes.
There’s some hope that those protections might return, Moritsugu says. On Jan. 14, President-elect Joe Biden proposed a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan that would reinstate the benefits and expand them to more workers by closing some of the loopholes.
“If we could extend it, it would give hope for the millions of people who have struggled to balance health and work responsibilities,” she notes, adding that she herself is a COVID-19 long-hauler but counts herself lucky because of her employer’s generous leave program and her ability to work from home.
She adds, “There are too many people left behind that, I don’t think, people are paying enough attention to. What are the long-term effects on families and the economy?”
Employers need to think through these issues, including developing plans to help workers who develop long-haul COVID-19, says Michael Cole, lead employment counsel at Gusto, which provides payroll and benefits services to small businesses. Communicating with empathy and providing flexibility, such as allowing employees to work from home, is also key, he said.
“Employers are trying to figure out how do they survive and get through this and stay open,” he notes.
For some employees, the impact of long-haul COVID-19 has hit them not only physically, but economically.
Economic hit from COVID-19
Laura LeBlanc, 53, of Royal Oak, Michigan, used up her vacation time as she struggled with long-haul COVID-19, and eventually went on short-term disability, which reduced her income.
“I was taking home like $100 a week,” she says. An inheritance last year from a family member helped her stay afloat until she was able to return to work in July. “If I hadn’t, I could have lost my house,” she recalls.
The COVID-19 long-haulers who spoke with USA TODAY expressed a desire to return to work, as well as fear and anxiety about the unknowns caused by their lingering health issues.
For Stephen Donohue, it’s meant stepping back from his dream career as a nurse. After becoming ill with COVID-19 in April, he returned to his job in July – and lasted three shifts. He continues to suffer symptoms like chest pains and memory issues and isn’t currently working. He’s not sure when he might be able to return.
“We don’t know if we are ever going to get back to that point” of returning to their regular jobs, Donahue, 41, of Levittown, Pennsylvania, says. “And that’s scary.”
Donahue, who joined the Marines when he was 25 so he could enroll in college through the GI Bill to become a registered nurse, said he believes the U.S. needs more clinics for long-haulers to provide support and treatment. As a father of three, he worries about the impact on his children.
“I want to make sure they are taken care of, which means me getting back to work no matter the cost,” he adds.
Rethinking jobs post-COVID-19
For some, long-haul COVID-19 has prompted them to rethink their jobs.
Lyss Stern, 46, who operated an events company in New York City, became ill with the virus in March. The pandemic effectively shuttered her business, but even if her company could start up again, she says her continuing symptoms would require her to hire people to help her run it.
In the meantime, she’s started new businesses that allow her to work at home, such as an e-commerce site for ordering children’s craft kits that was inspired by one of her three children.
“God knows how many of us are out there, and how many will be out there,” Stern says.
“If you are a grocer, pharmacist, gas station attendant – these are shifts on where you’re on your feet all day. You don’t have that physical stamina.”
She predicts more long-haulers will start their own businesses or shift to jobs that allow them to work from home. She adds,
“A year from now, when everyone is vaccinated,” she says, “a lot of long haulers won’t be able to be in the office because their bodies won’t make it.”
Aimee Picchi is a business journalist whose work appears in publications including USA TODAY, CBS News and Consumer Reports. She spent almost a decade covering tech and media for Bloomberg News. You can find her on Twitter at @aimeepicchi.