It has been a little over two years since the Covid-19 pandemic afflicted the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of October 2022, daily cases reached over 97 million and deaths surpassed one million. Despite the significant number of infections, about five million people have been hospitalized and most people have recovered from the virus.
The length of recovery, however, has lasted longer for some patients. Census Bureau data indicates that 16 million Americans who are working age experience COVID symptoms for months or years post-infection. This illness is commonly referred to as long COVID or post-COVID conditions. The CDC says that, as of July 2021, long COVID can be considered a disability as classified by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Although some Americans experience mild post-COVID conditions, many others have symptoms that interfere with daily functions and rendered them unable to work.
According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine on the occurrence, severity, and recovery pattern of long COVID in 2020 and 2021, 1.3 million people in the data sample infected with the virus experience post-COVID conditions such as prolonged fatigue (51%), respiratory (60.4%) and cognitive impairment (35.4%) disabilities. According to the CDC, one in 13 adults in the U.S. have post-Covid conditions that can last three or more months after getting infected with the virus.
The Household Pulse Survey published by the CDC indicates the top three states with the highest incidence of long COVID are Louisiana (21%), Kentucky (20%), and West Virginia (20%). In Idaho, the prevalence of long COVID is 16%, in Washington it is 11% and Hawaii has the lowest number of “long haulers” with about 9%.
Harvard University scholar David M. Cutler estimates the total cost of long COVID to be $3.7 trillion. Loss of quality of life constitutes 59% of this cost with the rest attributed to reduced earnings and greater medical spending. On a per capita measure, this amounts to $11,000 per person and roughly 17% of pre-COVID gross domestic product (GDP).
The reduction of earnings estimate in this study indirectly reflects impacts on the U.S. labor force. According to a study by Dasom Ham, a researcher with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, 25% of long-haulers reported that their illness affected employment work or the hours they work. Furthermore, the author found that those who indicated that post-Covid conditions affected work are 10 percentage points less likely to be employed and on average reduce work hours by 50% as compared to individuals not ever infected with the virus.
Data documenting the impacts of Covid on the U.S. economy is scarce, but available data suggest that the labor force continues to face labor supply challenges due to the long-term impacts of the pandemic.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. population 16 years old and over with a disability was on the decline prior to the pandemic. In 2020, the number of people with disabilities declined by 1.6% from 2019. By the end of 2021, the disabled population increased to 4%. This national trend is consistent with data available for Washington state. As indicated previously, in Washington, the incidence of long Covid, now classified as a disability by the ADA, is 11.1%. This increase in prolonged illness due to post-Covid conditions in Washington is potentially linked to the increase in self-reported disabilities in the state.
Data from the American Community Survey (see graph) suggests that the increase in self-reported disability in Washington could be linked to long Covid. The data is disaggregated by disability type. The largest self-reported disability is a cognitive disability which the CDC describes as having serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions. Studies suggest that patients with long Covid experience prolonged fatigue, respiratory illness, and cognitive impairments such as “brain fog.”
The impact of long Covid on Washington’s labor force shortages could be significant. From 2019 to 2021, self-reported disability in the state increased by 39% among the unemployed population. For this group, cognitive impairment accounts for 47% of the reported disabilities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines unemployed individuals as people who are actively looking for a job but cannot find employment. In terms of workers who dropped out from the labor force, these individuals are not reporting significant disabilities.
Long Covid has been documented in medical literature and it can interfere with employment. Although most reported disabilities post-Covid are from unemployed workers, there is a significant number of employed individuals dealing with disabilities because of contracting the virus. Data indicate that in Washington 32% of individuals employed are long haulers struggling with a cognitive disability. Given the significant impact of Covid on the Washington labor force, it will be important for employers to be flexible and offer an array of work arrangements that would make it possible for affected employees to work productively.
Dr. Vange Hochheimer is an associate professor of economics at Whitworth University and CEO of Grand Fir Analytics LLC.
Subscribe today to our free E-Newsletters!SUBSCRIBE