Long Covid and ACC: The “appallingly” low number of claims accepted

There have long been fears that Covid is creating a labor shortage. Photo/Getty Images

Only seven long-term Covid cases have been accepted by the ACC, and there are fears that lingering health problems caused by the disease will leave people unable to work and facing serious financial hardship.

ACC data shows just 73 Covid claims have been made since the start of the pandemic despite more than a million New Zealanders officially contracting the disease, and fears the real number is three times higher.

There have long been fears that Covid is creating a labor shortage.

Research in the US attributes 15% of job vacancies to long Covid, while a Lancet study found that 46% of people with long Covid reduced their working hours.

Sufferers told the Herald about symptoms including ‘brain fog’, shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, headaches, joint and muscle pain and others dogged people for months afterward. have been classified as “recovered”.

Figures show the ACC has only accepted 16 Covid claims – including the seven long Covid cases – and all of them were people who had contracted the disease on the job.

The ACC says 11 of those covered by the ACC were health workers, while it rejected 15 other work benefit claims and 37 non-work claims. There are four work-related claims he has yet to make a decision on and one non-work-related claim is still under review.

The Department of Health has officially recorded 1,134,554 people who have had Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, but modellers believe the true number could be up to three times higher.

A study by the UK’s Office for National Statistics found that 1.7million people (2.7% of the population) had long-lasting Covid, while previous work estimated that one in 10 people had symptoms for 12 weeks or more.

This would put the incidence of Long Covid in New Zealand between 30,000 and 300,000.

Jenene Crossan, of the Long Covid Aotearoa Support Group, said she believed around 200,000 people were currently experiencing health effects from their Covid-19 infection.

“For people who have mortgages, they back off. Within the group, the biggest issue outside of their health is ‘how am I going to make ends meet? “.”

Crossan said those who had Covid for a long time felt they had a hard time being believed by employers and were often forced to return to work before they were healthy, which worsened health and possibly mental health issues such as anxiety.

She said changes needed included GPs coding people as having ongoing Covid-19 problems, which would allow data to be collected, needs assessed and support targeted. She said there was also a need to provide financial support beyond benefits for those who could not work at the same level as before.

“It’s going to squeeze a whole lot more people out of the labor force. It’s probably the biggest problem New Zealand will face over the next couple of years.”

ACC specialist lawyer Phil Schmidt, a partner at Schmidt and Peart Law, said he would have expected more than 16 claims to have been successful and suspected a lack of knowledge was behind the this low number.

However, he said it was not an easy claim to pull off and the ones he was successful with relied on the ability to show the disease was contracted at work.

He said a successful claim had to show that it was more likely than not that the disease was contracted as a result of their work, that there was no relevant exposure elsewhere, and that the worker had higher risk than the general population.

Schmidt said the workforce most likely to have claims would be those in MIQ, border security, working on planes or health workers. It was also easier when it was possible to trace the strain of the virus.

“Will there be a significant number of New Zealanders who can pass these tests because of their work? Yes, of course there are.”

University of Auckland law professor Jo Manning, who specializes in ACC law, said the Omicron outbreak would make it harder for people to prove an infection happened at the work.

“If the infection occurred during elimination or a time when Covid prevalence was very low in the community, a health worker may well be able to establish infection from their work environment and could be covered. It would be more difficult to establish the criteria now, when we have accepted community broadcasting.”

New Zealand nurses’ organization kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku said they had asked regional and senior union members about the ACC and none were aware of any claims made – largely because they didn’t believe it was possible.

Nurses returned to work too soon after having Covid, their union says.  Photo / 123RF
Nurses returned to work too soon after having Covid, their union says. Photo / 123RF

Nuku said an increasing number of members are being diagnosed with long Covid. She said the shortage of healthcare staff during the Omicron push led to nurses being asked to return even if they were symptomatic – a push contrary to advice that returning to work too soon could lead to a long covid.

“It meant the nurses weren’t recovering – they don’t have time to recover.”

University of Victoria epidemiologist Dr Mona Jeffreys said the low number of claims for ACC was likely due to people not knowing they could get compensation.

“The idea that the claim count has been accepted by the ACC is a joke. I’m just appalled at how low those numbers are. I had heard it was small but not that ridiculously low.”

She said it posed difficulties for those who ate while on sick leave and were still unable to return to work.

“For a lot of people, it’s going to be like that. If they don’t have savings or a family to lean on, you don’t have a job and this terrible cost of living.”

Health Minister Andrew Little said studies into the long Covid focused mainly on earlier strains of Covid-19 and officials were assessing evidence from New Zealand overseas on Omicron.

“Long Covid is an emerging category of disease,” he said.

ACC Minister Carmel Sepuloni said there were no government plans to expand ACC coverage. She said the law defined what was considered an accident and excluded a virus from that definition.

“Amending these provisions is not something the government is considering.”

Former Air NZ steward Daniel Lavender lost his job in a planned redundancy shortly after contracting Covid-19. He caught the virus in China during a layover, contracting a strain that was not in New Zealand.

Former Air NZ steward Daniel Lavender said he caught Covid-19 while working for the airline in China but was refused ACC cover.  Photo / Provided
Former Air NZ steward Daniel Lavender said he caught Covid-19 while working for the airline in China but was refused ACC cover. Photo / Provided

An offer of assistance via Air NZ as a self-accredited ACC provider failed.

He said the need to earn money meant he was returning to work faster than he thought and was at least partly responsible for the lingering health effects. The continued health impacts have meant that he recently revived his case for the ACC with the support of the E tū union.

Lavender, who flew overseas for 20 years, said he would have periods of good health and then a downward spiral.

“Vocabulary goes away pretty quickly and the ability to stay focused on a task and have clarity is completely taken away.”

Air NZ has been approached for comment. He has previously said he made the right decision in refusing Lavender’s cover offer and has been working to protect his staff from Covid-19 and support those who have contracted it.

The ACC said the seven cases were those with more than 12 weeks between when a claim was registered and the last payment date for medical treatment or weekly compensation on the claim.

The “long Covid” tag has been attached to these claims by the Herald using the Department of Health’s 12-week measure.

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