Long COVID and Its Workers’ Compensation Implications in Washington
While COVID-19 still dominates all aspects of the workforce and complicates decisions on when to request that workers come back to in-person working, a new form of the virus has emerged which threatens to upend closely laid plans. Post-acute sequalae of SARS CoV-2 (PASC, otherwise known as “long” or “long-haul” COVID) is characterized by many of the same symptoms as COVID-19 but can affect workers in many different – and sometimes profound – ways.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls such cases “post-COVID conditions,” using it as an umbrella term to refer to a range of “new, returning, or ongoing health problems” experienced by people four or more weeks after initial coronavirus infection. Those affected complain of a myriad of symptoms, from coughing and body aches to ongoing, debilitating fatigue, neuropsychological issues such as brain fog and often persistent, stabbing headaches. Confounding its diagnosis is the range of other, non-COVID causes which can easily manifest like some of the long COVID symptoms.
Complicating matters even further, long COVID can affect anyone, including the very young or even people who were previously diagnosed but experienced asymptomatic COVID-19. A recent study found that the condition is more common among older people, women, and those who had six or more symptoms during the first week of COVID-19, but as this condition is emerging, doctors are still learning more about its etiology. Finally, and most frustratingly, there is no single test that can diagnose long COVID. Doctors can only effectively diagnose it, in large part, based on a patient’s history of COVID-19 and by ruling out other possible causes.
For employers, the issues with long COVID are complicated even further by both the COVID-19 presumption and the Maphet v. Clark County decision. First, the COVID presumption, found in Senate Bill 5115, provides a presumption that all health care and frontline workers who contracted a contagious or infectious disease did so in the course of their work; that disease is thereby compensable. A worker with long COVID who falls under this presumption may be entitled to significantly more treatment, as the long COVID necessarily arose from an allowable claim. Second, the recent Maphet v. Clark County decision stands for the proposition that if a self-insured employer authorizes treatment for a condition, the employer has accepted responsibility for the condition under the claim. 451 P.3d 713 (2019). The myriad symptoms which might indicate long COVID mean an employer might treat conditions which were ultimately not caused by COVID-19 but, because treatment was authorized, they now own as compensable.
If you have a worker with a previously compensable diagnosis of COVID-19 experiencing symptoms a month past his or her positive test, the best course of action is to call a defense attorney and arrange for an Independent Medical Examination to rule out symptoms as unrelated to the COVID diagnosis. If you have any questions regarding long COVID or its recommended defense strategy, please contact an attorney at SBH Legal at (503) 225 5858 or email me at