According to research, COVID keeps a significant number of people out of work for a long time

A long-time Covid patient is brought by her mother to a hospital in Sacramento, California, October 15, 2021. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

A long-time Covid patient is brought by her mother to a hospital in Sacramento, California, October 15, 2021. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

Long COVID is having a significant impact on the U.S. workforce, preventing significant numbers of people from returning to work while others continue to need medical care long after they return to work, according to a new analysis of New York State workers’ compensation claims.

The study, published Tuesday by New York’s largest workers’ compensation insurer, found that in the first two years of the pandemic, about 71% of people the fund classified as suffering from COVID debt required further treatment or were unable to work for six months or more. The analysis found that more than a year after contracting the coronavirus, 18% of long-term COVID patients are still not back to work, more than three-quarters of whom are under the age of 60.

“Long Covid has hurt the workforce,” says a report by the New York State Insurance Fund, a state agency funded by employer contributions. It added that the findings “highlight long-term Covid as an underappreciated but important cause of the many unfilled jobs and declining labor force participation rates in the economy, and anticipate a possible reduction in productivity as employers feel the strain of an increasingly sick workforce.” “

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A report that examined COVID-related claims from patients exposed to the virus at work, filed between January 1, 2020 and March 31, 2022 and paid for by the agency, provides a snapshot of the issue. The agency, one of the country’s top 10 workers’ compensation insurers, said nearly a third of the 3,139 COVID-related claims it paid met its definition of long COVID.

Patients received insurance from the fund if they tested positive for coronavirus, and the agency or the schemes board. The report classified a case as long COVID if, after being infected, the patient required treatment for 60 days or more or lost 60 or more days of work.

“It’s a pretty conservative estimate,” said Gaurav Vasisht, executive director and CEO of the insurance fund. “It doesn’t include people who may have gone back to work and not seek medical attention and may still be suffering, so you know, they’re just going through it.”

Officials said during the reporting period, the claims of the 977 people the fund identified as long COVID cost about $17 million of the roughly $20 million paid to all COVID patients, adding that the percentage of lost wages was slightly more than for treatment. But Vasisht warned that the dollar amounts only paint a partial picture because it was unclear how long people would need medical care or time off due to long-term COVID.

He added that the cost to patients goes beyond money. “The longer you’re out of work, the harder it is for you to get back to work, and that can stigmatize patients,” Vasisht said. “It can greatly disrupt their family and professional lives.”

Long COVID is defined by public health authorities as a constellation of symptoms that persist after the initial infection or appear weeks later and may include respiratory problems, fatigue and brain fog. The Government Accountability Office estimated that long-term COVID affected between 7.7 and 23 million people in the United States.

Katie Bach, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was not involved in the report, said the study found that “we have a group of people who have had COVID for a long time and have not been able to return to work, at least so far, and it is a non-trivial number of people.”

She said the report only reflects a subset of the workforce: workers exposed to the virus in the workplace who have enough knowledge about workers’ compensation to make claims. It may include workers who are younger or sicker than the entire worker population, while missing other long-COVID workers, said Bach, whose own research suggests about 500,000 people in the US are out of work because of long-COVID.

The New York report also found some optimistic signals. Since the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020, the number of long-term COVID cases has decreased as a percentage of workers’ compensation claims and COVID-related claims. The decline coincided with the advent of vaccines, which research shows reduce the risk of long-term COVID, and new treatments for the coronavirus, supporting the notion that if people can avoid serious illness after an initial infection, they are less likely to experience long-term symptoms.

Despite this, Vasisht said the agency continues to receive claims from workers with long-term COVID, especially after a spike in infections. The report also suggested that more workers than reflected in the data may have met the criteria for long COVID claims. The vast majority of all COVID-related claims, more than 83%, were filed by key workers – in professions such as healthcare, law enforcement and security. But only 29% of their claims met the long COVID definition, while 44% of non-essential workers met that definition.

This may be because “essential workers may not have been able to stay home beyond the required quarantine period,” the report said. And healthcare workers may have “self-medicated their symptoms” instead of seeking medical attention, the report said, adding that “essential workers could have Covid rates higher than the data suggest for long periods of time, creating a blind spot for policy makers.”

“A lot of people can’t afford not to work, so they work when they really shouldn’t, continuing to work when they’re sick,” Bach said. She said the experiences of people with similar post-viral conditions, such as myalgic encephalomyelitis and chronic fatigue syndrome, suggest that some people who work despite the long period of COVID may have a harder time recovering. When people with the condition, which is characterized by fatigue and brain fog, go to work, they will not be as productive and will likely decrease their chances of improvement,” she said.

And with 40% of long-term COVID applicants returning to work within 60 days of being infected while still receiving treatment, Vasisht said employers may receive “more requests for reduced working hours or other accommodations.”

The study also found that doctors used a specific long COVID diagnostic code in only 30 cases, even though the code was added to the International Classification of Diseases in October 2021. “Doctors do not use the ICD code,” Vasisht said, adding that his organization believes “may do a lot of good by reaching out to the medical community and informing them about the long COVID research as well as the existence of this ICD code.”

Other findings were consistent with previously identified COVID long patterns, including results from two 2022 studies that analyzed different sets of workers’ compensation data. The most common long-term symptoms of COVID included shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness, and problems with cognition and memory.

Women appear to be at greater risk than men, as are those who become sick enough after the initial infection to require hospitalization, and those with pre-existing conditions such as lung disease, high blood pressure, obesity and depression. Adults over 60 were less likely to return to work than younger workers, which could indicate that some long-term COVID sufferers are taking early retirement, adding to labor shortages, Bach said.

Overall, said David Cutler, a professor of economics at Harvard who has studied the costs of long-term COVID and was not involved in the study: “The report shows that even if the number of COVID deaths goes down, COVID is not going to end and it won’t be for some time. “

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