Tom Bebbington

UNH researchers recently received a $2.5 million grant to study long COVID and its effects on healthcare and employment of workers with disabilities. Vidya Sundar, associate professor in the department of occupational therapy, and Debra Brucker, research associate professor at the Institute on Disability (IOD), received funding from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR), to conduct a 5-year study that will focus on understanding how individuals with disabilities and long COVID balance their health and job demands.

“The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fragilities and fault lines in our healthcare and workforce systems,” says Sundar. “We now recognize that early efforts to contain the pandemic used ableist and individual-focused strategies rather than a systems-based, public health approach. As a result, individuals with disabilities were excluded from public health messages and certain virtual healthcare platforms, and were systematically denied access to life-saving health care due to rationing of medical supplies.

“Today we are dealing with long COVID, which is still evolving. For people who already have disabilities and are experiencing long COVID, it is a double jeopardy of having to manage multiple debilitating symptoms. So, this study will focus on what that added layer of complication means for their day-to-day interactions with their employers and coworkers,” says Sundar. 

“We know that workers with disabilities, particularly those that worked in frontline positions in healthcare, retail, and service industries during the pandemic, faced high risks from COVID exposure,” says Brucker. “For those that developed long COVID and remained in the workforce, we are interested in understanding how they navigate career challenges—how they manage to both stay afloat and stay ahead in the workplace.”

The study will be conducted in partnership with researchers at the UNH Institute on Health Policy and Practice (IHHP), UNH Dimond Library, and Kessler Foundation, an organization that aims to improve rehabilitation and employment experiences of people with disabilities. Sundar and Brucker plan to use a multi-pronged approach including in-depth interviews, large scale data-driven projects, and testing of a novel intervention to reduce burnout at work and manage long COVID symptoms like brain fog.

“Ultimately, we hope that these projects will help develop programs and policies that enable individuals with disabilities and long COVID to live and work in the community,” says Sundar. 

For more on this story, see the Union Leader's November 12 article.