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Long COVID has sidelined many American workers
Long COVID has taken a heavy toll on the U.S. workforce, a new report shows.
The New York State Insurance Fund's analysis of workers' compensation claims found that long COVID was preventing workers from returning to their jobs, or they were going back but with symptoms that might affect their performance.
A full 71% of workers' compensation claims for people with long COVID during the first two years of the pandemic stated they needed continuing medical treatment or were not able to work for at least six months.
"Long COVID has harmed the workforce," the report authors wrote. The findings "highlight long COVID as an under-appreciated yet important reason for the many unfilled jobs and declining labor participation rate in the economy, and they presage a possible reduction in productivity as employers feel the strains of an increasingly sick workforce."
About 18% of the long COVID patients in the study still had not returned to work more than a year after their COVID-19 infection. More than 75% of them were younger than 60.
And that only tells part of the story.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that long COVID has affected 7.7 million to 23 million Americans.
The employees analyzed in the study probably already knew enough about workers' compensation to file claims, Katie Bach, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The New York Times.
Bach's own research suggests about 500,000 people in the United States are currently not working because of long COVID, the Times reported.
"It's a pretty conservative estimate," report co-author Gaurav Vasisht said of the analysis findings. He is executive director and chief executive officer of the New York State Insurance Fund.
"It's not capturing people who may have gone back to work and didn't seek medical attention and may still be suffering, so you know, they're just toughing it out," Vasisht told the Times.
Nearly one-third of 3,139 COVID-related claims that the fund paid between the study period of Jan. 1, 2020 and March 31, 2022 were for the state's definition of long COVID. That definition was to have a positive COVID test and a high risk of being exposed to the virus at work in places such as hospitals, transit systems and grocery stores.
If a patient required medical treatment for 60 days or more or lost 60 or more days of work, the report considered that a case of long COVID.
The fund paid $20 million to COVID patients, including $17 million for 977 people with long COVID, for lost wages and medical treatment.
These costs could continue as some people may continue to need medical care or time off from work, Vasisht said.
Fortunately, long COVID cases have decreased as a percentage of workers' compensations and of COVID-related claims, the report found, coinciding with the availability of vaccines and treatments that can reduce the risk of long COVID.
But Vasisht noted that some new claims are still being filed, especially after infection surges.
While 83% of long COVID claims were filed by essential workers, only 29% of those met the definition for long COVID. That compares to 44% of claims by nonessential workers meeting that definition.
"Essential workers might not have been able to stay home from work beyond the required quarantine period," the report said. Health care workers might have "self-treated their symptoms" rather than seeking medical care, adding that "essential workers may have long COVID rates higher than the data suggests, creating a blind spot for policymakers."
David Cutler is an economics professor at Harvard University who has researched the cost of long COVID. "The report shows that even if COVID deaths are down, COVID is not over, and it won't be for some time," he told the Times.
More information: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on long COVID.
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