‘It’s terribly lonely’: Some Nova Scotians with long COVID just want to return to work

Deryk Smooke was driving in his vehicle recently when his smartwatch alerted him that his heart rate was up and it wasn’t returning to normal.

Smooke, 41, was heading from his home in Amherst, N.S., to the Costco in Moncton, N.B., to get some groceries with his wife. The 70-minute round trip drive took so much out of him that he crashed for three days afterwards.

“I don’t think my body was too happy with me,” said the father of three.

Smooke contracted COVID-19 in early October and has been off work due to the fatigue and brain fog he experiences.

The correctional officer worries he’s in the early stages of long COVID, a catch-all term for a range of post-infection health impacts that linger at least three months after contracting the coronavirus.

Deryk Smooke is shown with his wife and three kids. He says long COVID comes with a significant mental health toll and is encouraging people to check in with people they know who have it. (Deryk Smooke)

Recent Statistics Canada data suggests 1.4 million adults experienced symptoms three months after a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection.

For some people with long COVID, the symptoms are so severe they are unable to work.

Mount Saint Vincent University economics professor Nargess Kayhani said this has many implications for individuals and society.

“There’s going to be unemployment, there’s going to be bankruptcy, household debts, financial difficulties,” she said. “We are going to use up our retirement savings.”

For Elizabeth Oldham of Spryfield, N.S., she’s feeling the financial pinch of contracting COVID-19. She contracted the coronavirus in May 2021 and spent two weeks on a ventilator.

By October 2021, she was feeling well enough to return to work as a dental office administrator. Since then, she’s struggled to work consistently.

The economic toll of long COVID

“I haven’t had any income since the 15th of October,” said Oldham, who applied recently for short-term disability.

She said her savings have dried up and she’s relying on her credit cards to get by.

“I’m a very independent individual. I don’t like to ask for help and I had to ask for a lot in the last year and a half. And there’s not enough help for us,” she said.

“There’s not enough resources, medically, emotionally or financially … more needs to be done to help people focus on their health rather than worry about being homeless and there needs to be more effort put into mental health so that we can recover from this.”

Federal government benefits

The federal government has employment insurance and disability benefits that may be available to people suffering from long COVID.

In a statement, Employment and Social Development Canada said it recognizes that workers who have serious conditions may require more time to heal.

“When Canadians are facing illness, injury or quarantine, they deserve to be supported financially as they recover,” it said.

The statement noted they extended employment insurance benefits from 15 weeks to 26, effective Sunday, Dec. 18. This will apply to claims made on or after this date.

The department also noted there’s a website where people can find out what benefits and services may be applicable to them.

Increased costs for government

Kayhani said because of the potential symptoms of long COVID — such as anxiety, depression, mental health issues — it will increase health-care costs and what the federal government pays out in employment insurance and disability benefits.

She’s disappointed the Nova Scotia government lifted “common-sense restrictions” such as mandatory masking and mandatory isolation after a COVID-19 infection.

“This is going to create a vicious cycle,” said Kayhani. “It creates more burden on [the] health-care system, which is already in crisis.”

Nova Scotians off work

In a statement, Nova Scotia Health said it doesn’t believe post-COVID — wording they and the World Health Organization use to describe long COVID — is a major problem in Nova Scotia.

It has received surveys from about 2,750 people who experienced symptoms three months after a COVID-19 infection. Of these people, Nova Scotia Health believes fewer than 100 people are unable to work because of long COVID.

Oldham misses working and the fact her condition means she often lacks the energy to leave home.

“It’s terribly lonely. I feel like I’m in prison. Even worse than prison, at least when you’re in prison, you’re around inmates,” she said, adding she’s never been incarcerated.

Smooke also hopes to return to work, although there’s no date in sight.

“I’ve learned to do one thing a day and rest for the majority [of the day], because from what I understand, my body is still in the battle with COVID,” he said.


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