A potentially large group of disability cases could be emerging in the months and years ahead which is being called “the COVID-19 long-hauler”. Thankfully, for most of the population that acquire COVID-19, the symptoms are mild to moderate, lasting only a few weeks. However, there is a group of people that experiences persistent symptoms. Medical studies have shown approximately 10 percent of people who have had COVID-19 experience prolonged symptoms. Thus far, the United States has experienced almost 30 million COVID-19 cases, so there could potentially be millions of new disability cases. What is being done to help these people obtain social security disability benefits if they are unable to work as a result?
In order to qualify for benefits, a person must have a severe impairment that affects his/her ability to perform basic work activities. So what is long-haul COVID-19? According to the Centers for Disease Control, the most commonly reported long-term symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, joint pain and chest pain. Other reported long-term symptoms include difficulty with thinking and concentration (sometimes referred to as “brain fog”), depression, muscle pain, headache, intermittent fever and fast-beating or pounding heart (also known as heart palpitations).The more serious, long-term complications that appear to be less common but that have been reported include inflammation of the heart muscle, lung-function abnormalities, smell and taste problems, sleep issues, difficulty with concentration, memory problems , depression, anxiety and changes in mood.
Once a medical impairment is established, a “durational requirement” must be met. This means that the medical impairment must last or be expected to last for more than 12 months or be expected to result in death. This requirement is beginning to be met as Covid-19 enters into its second year of existence.
Once the impairment and durational tests have been met, a long-haul COVID case is to be evaluated as any other disability case since Social Security has issued no new regulations about how these applications should be considered. In a statement to NPR, the SSA advised that the current disability policy rules should be sufficient for evaluating COVID-related applications, although the agency did not rule out taking additional action in the future. “Researchers are still learning about the disease, and we will continue to look at our policies as research evolves, the statement said. However, the agency has begun to “earmark” apparent cases so they can create a database of common symptoms.
Congress is also getting involved. U.S. Representative John Larson, who serves on the congressional subcommittee that handles Social Security issues, joined with another member of Congress to write a letter asking the SSA to work with scientists to understand what support long‑haulers might need. Larson noted that it is challenging for the SSA to prepare for the situation because a number of important facts about long-haulers are still unknown. Nevertheless, “we know what’s coming. So, we have to make sure that we’re on top of this.” In his view, the SSA faces a fundamental question: “What do we have to do to make sure that we’re there for these individuals?
With the possibility of many cases that could potentially overwhelm the disability program, the SSA needs to put in place specific recommendations for how the disability program should manage COVID cases.