Long COVID is expected to cost the American economy trillions of dollars and will almost surely have an impact on a variety of industries, including hospitals that are already overburdened and restaurants that are having to replace low-wage labour.
As a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution and the author of a study examining the effects of lengthy COVID on the job market, Katie Bach says, “There’s a lot we need to do to understand what it takes to enable disabled people to engage more in the economy.”
According to CDC data from June 2022, among the 40% of American adults who had COVID-19, roughly one in five still has persistent COVID symptoms. This equates to 1 in 13 adults in the United States, or 7.5% of the adult population.
Bach calculates in her August 2022 study, based on CDC statistics, that as many as 4 million Americans of working age have lengthy COVID and are unable to do their jobs. This equates to $230 billion in lost wages, or little under 1% of the US GDP.
She declares, “This is a big deal. We could be talking about hundreds of billions of dollars annually, which is significant enough to have an appreciable effect on the labour market.
Although other sources have offered lower estimates, the results are the same: According to Bach, Long COVID is a critical issue that will cost tens of billions of dollars annually in lost pay alone. However, it’s not simply missed wages for employees. Both the public and corporations must pay a price.
Multiple industry experienced COVID-19’s severe effects during the epidemic. Despite the fact that business has resumed, staffing issues continue to be a problem. In several airports this summer, travellers were forced to wait hours in security lines, endured last-minute flight cancellations and rebookings that left them stranded for days, and endured weeks-long waits for misplaced luggage. Hours in restaurants have had to be shortened. Emergency rooms and urgent care centres experienced greater than typical wait times for those seeking medical attention. A few ERs were briefly closed.
These difficulties have been partly attributed to the “great resignation” and partly due to the large number of afflicted personnel who were absent, particularly during the Omicron waves. But concern over lengthy COVID’s effects on businesses and the general economy is growing among economists and healthcare professionals alike.
According to Harvard University economics expert David Cutler, PhD, the overall economic loss could reach $3.7 trillion when accounting for decreased quality of life, lost earnings, and increased medical expenses. His estimate is more than a trillion dollars greater than a prior forecast made in 2020 by him and economist Lawrence Summers, PhD. The cause? lengthy COVID
In a report published in July, Cutler stated that “the higher estimate is largely a result of the greater prevalence of extended COVID than we had predicted at the time.”
“There are around ten times as many people with protracted COVID as COVID-related deaths. All of the numbers used in the computations are unknown because lengthy COVID is so new. Even yet, these prices are modest because they only consider recent cases.
Bach predicted in her Brookings paper that the annual cost of lost wages alone may approach half a trillion dollars in ten years if long COVID recovery did not pick up and the population of Americans with long COVID were to increase by 10% annually.
According to a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, employees who missed a full week of work owing to suspected COVID-19 diseases had a 7 percentage point lower likelihood of still being employed a year later than those who did not miss work due to illness.
“This is affecting people of all COVID lengths, not only those with long COVID. It has an effect on their households, their means of subsistence, and the world economy. So, Linda Geng, MD, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University’s Primary Care and Population Health, adds, “We have to raise awareness about those ripple impacts.
“I believe that the public has a difficult time appreciating and comprehending the magnitude of this public health catastrophe.”
The CDC defines long COVID as symptoms that continue for three months or more after a patient initially contracts the virus.
Among the many symptoms are extreme weariness and cognitive problems.
Geng, who is also the co-director of Stanford’s Post-Acute COVID-19 Syndrome Clinic, describes the condition as a “new degree of intense and excruciating lethargy and exhaustion, to the point that you can’t accomplish your everyday tasks.”
People can become so incapacitated that they are unable to perform even the most fundamental tasks, such as daily tasks, let alone perform their jobs, especially if those tasks are physically or cognitively taxing.
According to Geng, patients can also experience post-exertional malaise, in which their symptoms get worse after they exert themselves physically or cognitively. For many long-term COVID sufferers, the problem is exacerbated by their inability to achieve quality sleep. Brain fog affects memory, information processing, focused concentration, confusion, blunders, and multitasking. Another incapacitating symptom that can interfere with everyday activities and employment is pain.
According to Geng, even those with very moderate illnesses can develop chronic COVID, adding that many of the patients at the Stanford clinic never had to be admitted to the hospital for their initial infections. Despite the fact that extended COVID can affect people of any age, according to studies and Geng’s clinical experience, she most frequently meets patients in their prime working years, ranging in age from 20 to 60.
The labour force participation rate was considerably below what could be explained by typical demographic shifts like an ageing population, according to Jason Furman, PhD, a former White House economic adviser who is currently a professor at Harvard University. The fall was visible across all age categories. Furman makes no guesses as to why, but others have.
According to analysts at Bloomberg Economics Anna Wong, Yelena Shulyatyeva, Andrew Husby, and Eliza Winger, “We are pessimistic: Both the ageing of the population and the impact of extended COVID predict that the participation rate will be slow to return to its pre-pandemic level.”
There is some evidence that immunisation lowers the risk of long COVID, but it is not conclusive, and it is still too early to tell whether recurring infections raise the risk of long COVID. Additionally, there is no concrete information on the number of persons healing or how quickly. Bach emphasised that many economists adopt the erroneous assumption that those with lengthy COVID will eventually recover.
She claims, “If people aren’t getting well, then this group just keeps growing.” “We’re still adding, and if people aren’t leaving that group, the situation only gets worse.”
According to Bach, the number of new cases of extended COVID appears to have decreased for the time being, although it is unclear if the trend will hold.
“We can have a lot of individuals who require services like disability insurance if they are affected for longer than we assume and if the impairment turns out to be severe,” Cutler adds.
“That might greatly stretch our capacity to provide for those needs through public sector services.”
Experts agree that it is critical for policies to support the clinical and research effort that is required to prevent and treat protracted COVID.
Without even mentioning the suffering of humans, Bach asserts that this is the most important economic imperative.
Employers play a part as well, and experts suggest that there are a few concessions that firms should take into account. What occurs when a worker’s COVID is too long? Can modifications be made so they can continue to produce good work? Can someone work from home if they spend a lot of time travelling? What can companies do to prevent family members from leaving their jobs to care for loved ones with lengthy COVIDs?
Undoubtedly, one of the jigsaw pieces does not fit quite right, according to Cutler and Bach. Nobody is entirely sure why there hasn’t been a noticeable rise in applications for federal disability insurance. According to publicly available government data, from 2019 and 2021, the number of online applications actually decreased by 4% year. Applications in 2022 are anticipated to be marginally lower than pre-pandemic levels.
An individual must have a disability that lasts at least a year in order to be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
“If you have a long COVID and are incapacitated, who knows, right? You are ignorant, says Bach. “Exhaustion and cognitive fog are two of the lengthy COVID’s most prevalent symptoms. I’ve learned from others that filling out an SSDI application is a difficult process.
Some long-term COVID patients admitted to Bach that they simply thought they would not qualify for SSDI and chose not to even submit an application. She emphasised that working Americans with crippling long COVID should be aware that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects their condition. However, the difficulty is that not all cases of lengthy COVID qualify as a handicap and that individual examinations are required, according to government instructions.
Bach thinks there is enough knowledge for decision-makers to attack the problem more forcefully, even though more lengthy COVID data are required. She cited the National Institutes of Health’s receipt of $1.15 billion in funds from Congress over a four-year period to promote research into the long-term health impacts of COVID-19.
When considering the cost of missing pay alone, $250 million a year doesn’t seem like a lot of money, Bach adds.
“That isn’t a lost opportunity. That is not the price that those whose loved ones are ill pay. They must decrease their own participation in the labour force. That isn’t medical expenses. Instantaneously, $250 million doesn’t seem like much.