Lawyers Fight For Their Careers While Fighting Long COVID

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When Erica Taylor contracted COVID-19 in the summer of 2020, she had only mild symptoms and intended to work from home. "But then the brain fog hit and the fatigue hit. And I could not think my way out of a paper bag," the 33-year-old Georgia attorney recalled.

During that first month, Taylor had a steady fever and even found herself blacking out a few times.

"Everything in my head went static, went to white noise. And I didn't know who I was, where I was. I just remember kind of coming out of it and feeling scared," Taylor, of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, told Law360.

Taylor developed blood clots in her leg and came down with pneumonia. Blood thinners now help prevent her blood from clotting, and her pneumonia eventually cleared up with antibiotics.

But nearly two years later, Taylor says she still has lingering chest pain and other symptoms that are consistent with long COVID.

It's the neurological deficits — the brain fog, namely — that worry Taylor the most.

"I'm a lawyer. My brain is my superpower," she said.

Taylor is far from alone.

Recent medical studies suggest that in the U.S., millions of people may continue to suffer the long-term effects of COVID-19 infection or long COVID, an umbrella term for the varied collection of symptoms that emerge long after the initial infection has passed.

With hospitalizations easing, states and cities lifting restrictions, workers returning to the office and people starting to emerge from isolation, much of the country seems to be moving on from the pandemic.

But for people with long COVID, the crisis isn't over yet.

And for those in the legal field, the lasting symptoms of COVID-19 could have a significant impact on their ability to manage the mental, social and billing demands of the job.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long COVID may occur even if the initial illness was mild or even completely asymptomatic.

Commonly reported long COVID symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue, brain fog, chest pain, headaches, dizziness and heart palpitations, which may worsen after physical or mental activity.

People recovering from COVID-19 need to be on the lookout for such symptoms and should be aware that if the symptoms substantially limit one or more major life activities, they may be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Employers would also do well to take workers' requests for reasonable accommodations seriously so as not to run afoul of the ADA, experts say.

Employment attorney and legal consultant Sally Culley, a partner at Rumberger Kirk & Caldwell PA, said many employers and employees don't realize that, as of July 2021, long COVID-19 could potentially be covered under the ADA.

Culley, who also serves as the administrative partner for Rumberger Kirk's Orlando office, stressed that employers should be compassionate and sympathetic to employees dealing with long COVID.

Culley said in the professional context, navigating long COVID can be "confusing, because there's no clear-cut answer that's going to be the same for everybody." What constitutes a reasonable accommodation for one employer may not be for another, she added.

For Taylor, figuring out how to live and work with long COVID-19 has been a work in progress.

As the managing attorney with a pro bono organization, the AVLF's Saturday Lawyer Program, Taylor advises a small staff and hundreds of volunteer attorneys who aid tenants battling evictions and other disputes with their landlords.

A month after her COVID-19 infection, her fever broke and she tried to return to work, but her brain was still foggy. She felt she couldn't safely practice law, Taylor said, as her critical thinking and recall were shaky at best.

She went on disability leave for six months, consulting with physicians and trying different medications and lifestyle changes while her supervisor held her job for her.

"Anywhere else, I think I probably would have been fired," Taylor said.

But Culley said firings aren't the answer.

Culley said employees experiencing long COVID symptoms that interfere with their ability to do their job should gather medical documentation and, like Taylor, talk with their supervisors about their symptoms. Employers then have a responsibility to engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine if there is a reasonable accommodation — such as reduced hours or a more flexible schedule — that would allow them to continue to do their job, she said.

"Both the employer and the employee should be working toward the same goal, which is to allow the employee to be able to do the job that they were hired to do," Culley said.

Beyond being compassionate, employers should be motivated to retain talent, given the steep cost of bringing on and training brand-new employees, she said.

Luckily, Taylor and her physicians found a combination of medications that eased many of her symptoms, allowing her to return to work in March 2021. But Taylor says she continues to experience chronic fatigue and finds that her brain still doesn't work quite as fast as it used to.

"I don't think most people realize how much work I put into having a good day," Taylor said.

She now needs more administrative assistance at work than she did before and still struggles with concentration, neuropathy, insomnia and memory loss, sometimes struggling to identify familiar objects such as her own car. She said she relies heavily on lists to stay on task.

"I have to constantly reset to remember what I'm doing. That's why I have lists that I refer to throughout the day to remind myself, 'OK, these are the steps to do this thing. This is what you're supposed to be doing next,'" Taylor said.

Taylor says she learned to adapt and even discovered new ways to innovate in her job. For instance, she said she's minimized the time it takes her to do certain tasks, such as emailing volunteer attorneys information about their clients' cases, by automating those emails.

After a year back at work, she's proven to herself that she can still think critically and creatively, which has helped her regain her confidence as an attorney.

And while she worries that her openness about the long-term effects COVID-19 has had on her brain could undermine her credibility as an attorney, she said it's important to her that others with long COVID know they're not alone.

Like so many others living with long COVID, Lindsay Polega, a 28-year-old associate in Florida, told Law360 that the last two years of her life have been "a wild ride." She contracted COVID-19 twice in law school, and then again after starting work at a law firm.

In February 2020 — before a national emergency had been declared in the U.S. — Polega was in her second year at Stetson University College of Law when she and many others on campus fell ill with what they assumed was the flu, but turned out to be COVID-19.

For months, she suffered coughing fits and joint pain. She developed chest pain and dizzy spells, and her blood pressure spiked out of control.

"I just kind of felt out of it. I guess that's what everyone is talking about when they say brain fog. I was just so exhausted," Polega recalled.

At first, her physicians wrote her off as just another stressed-out law school student.

"Obviously, I was stressed — I was in law school," Polega said. "But this would have been a whole new level of stress to cause physical symptoms in that way."

But she kept advocating for herself, and eventually was put on medication to keep her blood pressure under control. She says that medication is typically given to people who have suffered heart attacks.

"Even my doctor said, 'I've never put someone in their 20s on this before,'" Polega said.

Polega contracted COVID-19 again in early 2021, during her final year of law school, and then in late 2021, just a few months after starting as an associate at a small Florida law firm that specializes in construction-related litigation.

She scaled back her hours slightly, but kept working despite lingering symptoms.

Still, Polega said she considers herself lucky, noting that her firm encouraged her to take the time she needed to get better. She said simple gestures have had a lasting impact on her, such as when a partner asked, "Do you feel OK to work on this? If not, we'll find someone else."

Polega said she still experiences brain fog, especially on days when she overexerts herself, and she's worried it may never fully go away. She's also concerned that she'll have to be on blood pressure medication for the rest of her life and won't ever regain the stamina she had before contracting COVID-19.

While just starting out as an attorney, Polega can't help but wonder whether she'll continue to get sick and if so, how she'll manage her career.

While some doctors think her symptoms look like long COVID-19, others think it's possible that the viral infection unearthed an underlying condition.

"There's a lot of different theories and no one has had a good answer. Just some guesses," she said.

For those with long COVID-19, answers remain few and far between. And while it's impossible to say if there will ever be clear-cut answers, there is a growing push to try to find them.

Earlier this month, the White House released a coronavirus response strategy to speed up efforts to detect, prevent and treat long COVID-19, and members of the U.S. Senate introduced the Comprehensive Access to Resources and Education, or CARE, for Long COVID Act to accelerate research into the condition.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who contracted COVID-19 in early 2020, has also been living with symptoms for the past two years.

"I have lingering nerve-tingling 24/7 all over my body," Kaine told reporters at a press call on March 2. "I tell people it feels like all my nerves have had five cups of coffee."

The senator said long COVID-19 hasn't gotten in the way of his work, sleep or exercise.

"It's just weird," Kaine said. "For a lot of people it's more than weird. It's painful, it's debilitating."

Kaine, who before serving in public office represented victims of discrimination as a civil rights attorney, said symptoms such as mental fatigue and confusion can make it hard for people to work. He stressed that there will need to be adjustments and accommodations for them in the workplace.

For people who have had their symptoms dismissed in the past, Kaine said the CARE for Long COVID Act sends the message that "we believe you. We know this is real, and we're going to get to the bottom of this."

--Editing by Alanna Weissman and Kelly Duncan.

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