By Chris Taylor
NEW YORK -When Nicole Flecchia contracted COVID-19 in January of 2021, the University of Rhode Island grad student figured she might be looking at a few days or weeks of symptoms.
It is now April of 2022, and the symptoms have never really gone away.
The 26-year-old is among the millions of Americans with so-called long COVID, with the damage from the virus taking a toll on their bodies and finances for months or even years.
Because as much as the virus attacks the body – in Flecchia’s case, with a dry cough, extreme fatigue, and brain fog – it can also attack your financial life.
For example, Flecchia’s student program required her to work 20 hours a week during the school year, and 40 hours a week during the summer. With long COVID, she could only work for an hour or two at a time.
Flecchia tried to tough it out, but this past January she finally went on medical leave from her program. She is living off savings while she waits for the symptoms to recede.
Her story is far from unique. The American Academy of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation estimates that of the 79.17 million Americans who survived a bout with the coronavirus, 30% or 23.75 million are dealing with some level of post-acute COVID.
Typical symptoms include headaches, fatigue, sleep disturbance, dizziness, breathing difficulty and persistent brain fog, all of which can affect your ability to make a living.
“People are now realizing that this doesn’t just devastate you physically, it can ruin you financially,” says Diana Berrent, founder of Survivor Corps, the world’s largest COVID grassroots movement with around 200,000 members.
The Biden administration has taken note of the looming health crisis and this week said it would develop a national plan to expand research, care and disability services for Americans suffering from the debilitating condition.
Ideally, prolonged health issues would be covered by workplace disability insurance, which provides a percentage of your earnings while your ability to work is impacted. According to the 2020 benefits report of the Society for Human Resource Management, 71% of organizations surveyed offer long-term disability coverage, and 62% provide short-term coverage.
But since long COVID is a recent phenomenon with more than 200 potential symptoms and little understanding of its underlying causes, sufferers often run up against roadblocks dealing with health insurance companies and government agencies.
And many employers do not offer disability coverage. In addition, growing numbers in the workforce operate on a freelance or short-term contract basis, without access to company benefits.
In such cases, it might be worthwhile to secure disability coverage on your own. The wisdom of that goes beyond COVID, since a quarter of Americans will experience disability at some point in their working lives, according to the Social Security Administration.
A few tips: Typically you might look for a policy that replaces around 60%-70% of your total taxable earnings, according Mark Friedlander, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute. That could cost 1%-4% of your annual income when it comes to premiums.
The best coverage builds in cost-of-living increases and keeps pace with inflation. Usually, there are waiting periods before benefits are paid out, such as 60 or 90 days, with the first check cut 30 days after that. Look for a coverage period that lasts at least until age 65.
And keep in mind that if you are already dealing with long COVID, you will not be able to take out a new policy to cover it, since it would be considered a pre-existing condition.
There is also the potential for getting disability benefits through Social Security for those who have worked for many years and paid into that system.
However, that is a lengthy process involving both state and federal agencies, which will review the claim. But for those whose COVID symptoms are long lasting, a monthly benefit going forward could certainly help stave off financial ruin.
“I would say the earlier the better for filing, because it is taking a long time to process,” advises T.J. Geist, principal advocate with the firm Allsup, which helps sufferers file such claims. “It also helps to have a representative, since you are dealing with multiple layers of government.”
See your doctor on a regular basis, Geist advises, and make sure to get documentation of all your limitations and symptoms.
As for Nicole Flecchia, she still gets winded from ordinary activities like climbing the stairs to her apartment. But she looks forward to the day when she can pursue her oceanography studies.
“I’m trying to stay positive, because it’s really the only thing I can do,” she said. “I have to hope that I will eventually get better and be able to work again.”
(Editing by Lauren Young and Bill BerkrotFollow us @ReutersMoney or at http://www.reuters.com/finance/personal-finance.)