Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 — August 31, 2022

“Shared expectations lead to predictability.”

584.  New study shows “long Covid” is keeping up to 4 million people out of work.

         QHow has “long Covid” affected people’s ability to return to work?

         A:  Millions of people who have had “long Covid” find themselves suffering from a host of debilitating symptoms that can persist for weeks, months, or even longer after their initial coronavirus infection symptoms fade.   Fatigue is the most common complaint.  And that’s often coupled with some breathing problems, either coughing or shortness of breath.  Neurological issues including headaches, tingling or numbness in the arms and legs, ringing in the ears, changes in vision, as well as trouble with thinking, or “brain fog” are also on the list of commonly reported “long Covid” cases reported according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Science has yet to understand “long Covid” syndromes. The main reasons for this are these chronic conditions emerge after the acute effects of Covid-19 have passed, and there is much diversity in the chronic conditions that result from Covid.

One study correlating long Covid chronic conditions with prior infections of Covid-19 was reported on August 24, 2022, by the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC.  Katie Bach, a senior fellow at Brookings examined why there continue to be labor shortages and missing workers as the economy is recovering.  Earlier, in January 2022, Brookings published a report that assessed the impact of long Covid on the labor market. Data on the condition’s prevalence was limited, so the report used various studies to make a conservative estimate: 1.6 million full-time equivalent workers could be out of work due to long Covid. With 10.6 million unfilled jobs at the time, long Covid potentially accounted for 15% of the labor shortage.

This June, the Census Bureau finally added four questions about long Covid to its Household Pulse Survey (HPS), giving researchers a better understanding of that condition’s prevalence. This August Brookings report uses that new data to assess the labor market impact and economic burden of long Covid, and finds that:

  • Around 13 million working-age Americans (those aged 18 to 65) have long Covid today.  This is an estimated 8% of working-age Americans.
  • Of those, 2 to 4 million are out of work due to long Covid.

A recent Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis study corroborates these conclusions. Using a longitudinal survey, the study found that 24.1% of people who have contracted Covid-19 experienced symptoms for three months or more, which the author defined as long Covid.  And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 70% of Americans have contracted Covid-19. If 24.1% of them have had long Covid, 34 million working-age Americans have, at some point, had long Covid.

The Minneapolis Fed study also found that 50% of respondents had recovered from long Covid. If we exclude that 50%, we are left with around 17 million people who may currently have long Covid—very near the estimate of 16.3 million.

The Brookings recent study also reports that mild symptoms, employer accommodations, or significant financial need can all keep people with long Covid employed. But in many cases, long Covid impacts work. Understanding that impact requires additional data points:

  • First, we need to know what percentage of people with long Covid have left the workforce or reduced their work hours. Estimates vary.  Citing several other studies in the U.S. and Great Britain, Brookings concludes that of the 16.3 million working-age Americans with long Covid, we can assume 12.2 million were in the labor force.
  • We also need to calculate the reduced hours of the people with long Covid who kept working. The Minneapolis Fed study found that, on average, they reduced their hours by 10 hours a week; using that number and a 40-hour work week, we can assume that these workers reduced their hours by 25%.  Using the Minneapolis Fed, and different data from two other studies on the extent of work reductions gives us 2 million, 3 million, and 4 million full-time equivalent workers out of the labor force due to long Covid, respectively. The midpoint of this range—3 million full-time equivalent workers—is 1.8% of the entire U.S. civilian labor force.

This may sound unbelievably high, but it is not inconsistent with the experiences of comparable economies. For example, a Bank of England representative recently stated that labor force participation has dropped by around 1.3% across the entire 16- to 64-year-old population and that the majority of that impact is from the rise in long-term sickness suspected to be long Covid. Meanwhile, one-quarter of UK companies cite long Covid as one of the main causes of long-term staff absence.

It is also consistent with the current labor market experience in the U.S., where employers in face-to-face industries such as education, transportation, food service, hospitality, and health and social care are facing persistent labor shortages.

Editor’s comments: While this academic report is focused on economics, it raises an important perspective on assessing public health risks.  This report and its finding are already being seen by many experts as pathfinding in that it proposes an outline of the extent of long Covid that even now appears to be unreasonably larger than suspected.  It challenges prior assumptions and is encouraging further research to refute or confirm these conclusions.  The public has been told there is a shortage of teachers because of the pressures of culture wars, and frustrations over Covid restrictions.  What if many teachers are leaving their profession because of chronic disabilities not before seen as related to long Covid?  Has long Covid played a factor in the shortage of hotel and restaurant workers?  Truck drivers?  How will individuals assess their personal risks differently if this theory turns out to be true – if there really are increased long-term health risks than from what is now seen as an easily treated minor disease?