Meet a woman suffering from long COVID who quit her job, spent $11,000 on treatments, but still can't get disability insurance

Meet a woman suffering from long COVID who quit her job, spent $11,000 on treatments, but still can't get disability insurance
Thousands of Americans have likely left the workforce because of long COVID.Boy Anupong/Getty Images
  • Jenna Dreier stopped working after developing debilitating long COVID symptoms.
  • Thousands of Americans have likely left the workforce for the same reason.

Jenna Dreier, 55, never thought she'd be forced to stop working before retirement age. But as a professional insurance agent, she prepared for the scenario, just in case.

Dreier, who asked that her real identity and employer remain private but have been verified by Insider, worked at one of the biggest insurance companies in the US for nearly seven years.

When the Texas resident signed up for benefits, she bought into a disability policy offered by the company. As someone who has sold different types of insurance for years, Dreier was acutely aware of the surprising amount of Americans who need some sort of short-term disability help at some point in their careers. One in four, for instance, suffer from some sort of disability.

"I said, 'I'd rather be on the safe side in case something ever happens,'" Dreier told Insider.

And then something did: She got COVID.


She contracted the virus in January, and is still suffering 11 months later. After experiencing a mild case of COVID, Dreier became exhausted all the time, perennially nauseous, and "even small exertions" sent her to the emergency room, she said.

"When I went to the emergency room, each time it was uncontrollable nausea and vomiting to the point where I was dry heaving and dehydrated," she said. "If I try to sit up for more than 20 minutes, I feel really, really ill."

The description matches "long COVID," which happens when someone with COVID-19 develops symptoms that linger for an extended period, according to the CDC. The CDC says symptoms could last weeks or months, and they can go away and come back.

Much of long COVID is a mystery to healthcare professionals — why it happens, how to treat it — but a growing body of evidence shows that it has affected millions of Americans. Symptoms often include severe fatigue and "brain fog," which makes basic functions prohibitively difficult for those who suffer from it. Dreier is one of the thousands of Americans who have likely left the workforce because of long COVID, which costs US workers between $60 billion and $100 billion in lost wages per year, according to estimates from the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Brookings Institution, respectively.

At first she took a leave of absence, and started to receive payouts from her short-term disability insurance allowance. However, when it became time to transition into the long-term allowance of the policy — which guarantees benefits for longer, but at a reduced portion of her previous salary — her company denied the claim.


There's an appeal period, where Dreier can try to secure her disability payments again. But money is tight in the meantime.

"I have to separate myself from the financial strain even though I'm right in it"

Dreier is lucky enough to have some savings, but she's also the primary breadwinner for her family. Her husband also has a disability that caused him to stop working as an airline pilot more than a decade ago.

To buy her family some time, she ended up liquidating one of her investments so she could pay her mortgage. As of now, she's spent about $11,000 on various treatments, which has stretched her finances even thinner. Insider verified her medical expenses, which included Hail Mary treatments like red light therapy.

"I have to separate myself from the financial strain even though I'm right in it," she said.

Dreier's situation is complicated by the fact that a lot of medical professionals don't understand long COVID. She said she got unsatisfactory information from her first doctor about why she was sleeping so much and how long it might last.


She's since been treated for long COVID symptoms by multiple doctors, and is currently getting help from a long COVID clinic, according to medical records viewed by Insider.

But she never took an official test, and she was vaccinated. That's what hurt her in securing long-term disability, according to the rejection letter from her insurance company.

Dreier said she didn't get a COVID test initially because her symptoms were mild and she didn't want to clog the ER. Plus, at the time at-home COVID-19 tests were in scarce supply, and hospital systems were overloaded. Now, Dreier is incredulous that a test would be the deciding factor for getting disability.

"It's just funny to think about now because it feels like there are so many rapid tests, but people don't even use them because they're not always reliable," she said, of the time period when she was sick. Studies show that rapid tests like the ones available at stores can miss cases.

Now, she has a few months to appeal the insurance company's decision. If they deny her again, she can make the appeal in court. But she's spoken to lawyers about that potential scenario, and legal fees are high — usually one-third of her first 18 months of pay if she wins, she said.


The effort she puts into getting her disability insurance payout is a job of its own, she said, something that hurts her health in a vicious cycle as the stress makes it harder to recover.

She said she keeps getting flare-ups from the stress, which are "like catching COVID all over again."