Long COVID – is it the new Yuppie Flu?
COVID-19 is not just a disease of the lungs. In the initial (acute) phase of the illness, severe COVID-19 can cause pneumonia and respiratory failure, which can result in permanent damage and scarring to the lungs.
As well as these symptoms it can cause other life-changing complications. In particular, because it can increase the risk of blood clots, it can lead to deep-vein thrombosis, heart attacks and stroke. Less commonly, it can cause heart muscle inflammation and heart rhythm disturbances, such as atrial fibrillation.
Long COVID is a term used to describe the effects of COVID-19 that continue for weeks or months beyond the initial illness. The health watchdog NICE defines Long COVID as lasting for more than 12 weeks. Other sources consider symptoms that last more than eight weeks to be Long COVID.
This is a relatively new phenomenon and so more details of how many people are affected by long COVID are still emerging. It has been shown that around one in five people who test positive for COVID-19 have symptoms for five weeks or longer. For around one in 10 people, they last 12 weeks or longer.
Although data is limited at the moment there is a growing body of research that suggests that the condition can last for months if not years.
This isn’t specific to coronavirus, damage to the heart is also known to happen in severe flu and it is well documented that fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) – unkindly known as ‘Yuppie Flu’ – occasionally follow a severe bout of flu or glandular fever. As long ago as 1998 the courts recognised that CFS could be classified as a disability.
A recent study at Leicester University (not yet peer reviewed) indicates that 70% of COVID recoverees still experience symptoms five months after discharge form hospital. Women (mainly middle aged) are the most affected group. A study by Glasgow University mirrors these findings but suggests that affected people are taking over seven months to recover with many still showing residual symptoms. Nearly 20% of subjects reported having to leave work or change jobs as result of their symptoms.
This leads to the inevitable conclusion that Long COVID is likely to be a more or less certain candidate for disability. Although sufferers have not yet reached a point where their symptoms manifest themselves for 12 months or more (the test under section 6 of the Equality Act 2010) it is not beyond the realms of possibly to imagine that this will soon be the case.
If this is the case then employers must be vigilant as the disability does not need to have a name or even have been diagnosed officially to qualify from the protections that the Equality Act gives to sufferers of Long COVID.
Employers should be sensitive to employees who have suffered from COVID-19 and be alert to any changes in performance that could indicate that there is a long-term dimension to the condition in employees. It is not at all uncommon for people with this sort of problem to seek to hide it as was the case with sufferers of CFS and fibromyalgia.
Consideration should be given to amended duties on either a short- or long-term basis. Clearly it is almost mandatory, given the novelty and strangeness of this condition, that occupational health or some form of medical intervention is organised if only to ascertain the range of the impairment.
What is not a desirable course of action is to jolly employees along and expect them to put on a brave face and carry on as if nothing has happened. This condition is a new permanent feature of our working lives.
Victoria von Wachter is a barrister at 5 Essex Court