Long COVID: The Culprit Behind America’s Increasingly Sick Workforce in 2023
A 2022 study by The Brookings Institution revealed that as many as 4 million Americans are unable to rejoin the workforce as a result of chronic and debilitating long COVID symptoms. In 2023, it appears this trend has no intention of declining.
Researchers report that a “substantial number” of people are still unable to return to work, and those who can often require continued long-term medical care after their return. This begs the question: How many American workers are merely "toughing it out" in the workplace, often to their own detriment, rather than seeking needed medical care and taking sufficient time to rest and restore their health?
New York State Insurance Fund, one of the largest workers’ compensation insurers in America, suggests that the number of long-haulers suffering in silence may be higher than we realize. The agency reported that a whopping one-third of COVID-related claims filed met the definition of long COVID.
As per the agency’s definition, criteria for a long COVID case include:
- The patient required medical treatment for 60 days or more after the COVID infection; and/or
- The patient lost 60+ days of work due to long COVID symptoms.
Long COVID Cases: “A Pretty Conservative Estimate”
According to CEO Gaurav Vasisht, the estimated number of U.S. workers currently suffering from long COVID is “a pretty conservative estimate.” Of the 977 COVID-related claims that New York State Insurance Fund paid out, long COVID claims comprised $17 million of the total $20 million paid to all COVID patients.
Of course, monetary amounts only paint a partial picture, as many long COVID patients also have no way of knowing how long they will require medical care to manage their condition while continuing to provide for their families. For some people, this could mean years of additional expenses, medical care, and time off work.
Money isn’t the only factor, either. For many sick U.S. employees, the more time they spend out of the workplace, the more serious the detriment to their professional and personal relationships.
This can trap patients in a stigmatized limbo where they are unfit to work, but proving the true extent of their disabling condition would be too costly, time-consuming, and/or challenging.
This isn’t helped by backlogged bureaucratic processes, as many government agencies—including the Social Security Administration—are still struggling to catch up after the devastating COVID-19 pandemic.
These troublesome factors can make it all the more grueling for long-haulers to obtain the care and support they require to physically recover while continuing to provide for their families in an inflated economy.
Understanding the Full Extent of Long COVID
Experts predict that as many as 23 million people in the U.S. have been affected by long COVID. Fortunately, there are a few optimistic signals at play as we continue into 2023.
Reports show that since the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in 2020, the percentage of workers’ compensation claims related to long COVID has decreased. Unsurprisingly, this decline correlates to the introduction of the vaccine, and despite associated controversy and misinformation, studies show that the COVID-19 vaccine substantially reduces the individual’s risk of developing long COVID.
In addition to the advent of vaccines, overall improvements in COVID-related treatments have been made and likely contribute to the reported decline in long COVID cases.
How Is Long COVID Impacting Essential Workers?
Of the silent sufferers with long COVID in the American workforce, it’s possible that certain industries were more impacted by post-COVID conditions than other occupations. While reports reflect that although 83% of long COVID claims were filed by essential workers, only 29% of these claims met the definition for long COVID (compared to 44% of nonessential workers’ claims).
A possible explanation is the fact that essential workers were often unable to work remotely during the thick of the pandemic or even complete the mandatory quarantine period after an exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as the nature of essential occupations demands that workers remain on the frontlines as much as possible.
This can result in many employees being forced to return to their jobs while still sick. Unfortunately, for some of these employees, the premature return to work has only worsened the effects of long COVID.
Similarly, in the healthcare industry, it isn’t uncommon for professionals to self-treat their condition to keep symptoms tolerable enough to continue working. Again, insufficient recovery and restoration time may only worsen the impact of long COVID among these essential workers over time.
It’s likely that the pressure on essential workers in certain industries to continue working while sick has not only contributed to the low rate of essential worker claims meeting the criteria for long COVID, but also to the vast underrepresentation of Americans suffering from long COVID.
Learning About Long COVID Through Other Post-Viral Conditions
Those who suffer from myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) are already familiar with the substantial hardships of living with a chronic post-viral condition. Like long COVID sufferers, ME/CFS patients frequently experience brain fog, unrefreshing sleep, cognitive impairments, and chronic bouts of debilitating fatigue.
Unlike many people with long COVID, the majority of ME/CFS patients were forced to endure these chronic symptoms a long time ago, often at the risk of being dismissed or overlooked in the medical community. In fact, in the 1980s, ME/CFS earned the nickname “yuppie flu," as most patients were white women whose symptoms were often promptly dismissed without treatment.
Many individuals with ME/CFS have been forced to accept that they may never feel “100%” again—a hard pill to swallow for millions of COVID long-haulers, many of whom are just now coming to terms with the extent of their condition.
Katie Bach of The Brookings Institution explained, “A lot of people can’t afford to not work, and so they’re working when they really shouldn’t be...When people who have a condition whose hallmark symptoms are fatigue and brain fog go into work, they’re not going to be as productive and they’re probably reducing their odds of improvement.”
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