Prolonged COVID Keeps Significant Numbers Unemployed, Research Findings

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

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

According to a new analysis of workers’ compensation claims in New York state, protracted COVID has had a significant impact on America’s workforce, preventing a significant number of people from returning to work, while others continue to require medical care long after they return to work.

Research published Tuesday by New York’s largest workers’ compensation insurer found that in the first two years of the epidemic, nearly 71% of people the fund classifies as having long COVID-19 either required ongoing medical treatment or were unable to work for six months. or more. More than a year after contracting the coronavirus, 18% of long-term COVID patients still did not return to work, and more than three-quarters of them were under the age of 60, according to the analysis.

“Long-term Covid has damaged the workforce,” said the report, prepared by the New York State Insurance Fund, a government agency funded by employer-paid premiums. The findings “highlight that the long COVID-19 is an underappreciated but important reason for the many unfilled jobs and declining workforce participation rates in the economy and heralds a possible drop in productivity as employers feel the pressure of an increasingly sick workforce.”

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The report, filed between January 1, 2020 and March 31, 2022, and paid by the institution, analyzing COVID-related claims of patients exposed to the virus at work, provides a snapshot of the issue. The agency, one of the top 10 workers’ compensation insurers in the country, found that about a third of the 3,139 COVID-related claims it paid met the long COVID definition.

Patients received coverage from the fund if they tested positive for coronavirus and the agency or workers’ compensation board determined that there was a high risk of exposure to the virus in the workplace, usually in settings such as a hospital, grocery store, or transit. systems. The report classified a case as long-term COVID if a patient needed medical treatment for 60 days or more after infection, or lost work for 60 or more days.

“It’s a pretty prudent estimate,” said Gaurav Vasisht, the insurance fund’s executive director and CEO. “He can’t catch people who might have gone back to work and not sought medical attention and still be in pain, so you know, they just complicate the situation.”

Authorities said during the report’s timeframe, claims against 977 people the fund had identified as having long-standing COVID cost approximately $17 million, up from the approximately $20 million paid to all COVID patients, adding that the rate of lost wages was slightly more than for medical treatment. . But Vasisht cautioned that dollar amounts provide only a partial picture, as it’s not clear how long people will need medical care or leave for extended COVID-19.

He added that the cost to patients goes beyond money. “The longer you are unemployed, the harder it is for you to return to work, which can stigmatize patients,” Vasisht said. “It can be quite devastating for their family and professional life.”

Long COVID is defined by public health officials as a set of symptoms that persist or appear weeks after the initial infection and can include respiratory problems, fatigue, and brain fog. The Government Accountability Office estimates that long-standing COVID affects between 7.7 million and 23 million people in the United States.

Katie Bach, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution who is not a resident and was not involved in the report, said the study “shows that we have a group of people who have long had COVID and have not been able to return to work, at least until now.” and an insignificant number of people.

He said the report reflects only one slice of the workforce: employees who have been exposed to the virus in the workplace and are knowledgeable enough to claim workers’ compensation. Bach, whose own research has shown that nearly 500,000 people in the U.S. have long been out of work due to COVID, may include employees who are younger or sicker than the general working population, while missing other long-term workers with COVID.

The New York report also found some optimistic signals. Since the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020, long-term COVID cases have decreased as a percentage of workers’ compensation claims and COVID-related claims. The decline coincided with the advent of vaccines and new coronavirus treatments that research suggests reduce the long-term risk of COVID; symptoms.

Still, Vasisht said the agency continues to receive claims for workers with long-standing COVID, especially after increases in infections. The report also suggested that more employees may have met the criteria for lengthy COVID claims than is reflected in the data. The vast majority of all COVID-related claims, over 83%, were filed by essential workers in occupations such as healthcare, law enforcement and security services. However, only 29% of their requests met the long definition of COVID, while 44% of non-essential workers met this definition.

This may be because “essential workers will not be able to stay home from work beyond the required quarantine period,” the report said. The report also stated that healthcare workers may have “treated their symptoms themselves” rather than seeking medical attention, while “core workers may have long-standing rates of Covid-19 higher than the data suggest, creating a blind spot for policymakers.”

“A lot of people can’t afford not to work and so they work when they really shouldn’t, they keep working when they’re sick,” Bach said. He said the experience of people with similar post-viral conditions, such as myalgic encephalomyelitis and chronic fatigue syndrome, shows that some people who work despite their long COVID may have a more difficult recovery. “Once people with a condition whose prominent symptoms are fatigue and brain fog start to work, they won’t be as productive, possibly reducing their chances of recovery,” he said.

Vasisht said employers may receive “more requests for reduced hours or other accommodations” as 40% of claimants with long-term COVID return to work within 60 days of being infected while still receiving medical treatment.

The study also revealed that although the code was added to the International Classification of Diseases in October 2021, doctors only used a specific long COVID diagnostic code in 30 cases. “Physicians underuse the ICD code,” Vasisht said, adding that he believes his organization “could provide many benefits by reaching out to the physician community and informing them about the lengthy COVID research, as well as the existence of this ICD code.”

Other findings were consistent with previously identified long patterns of COVID-19, including results from two 2022 studies that analyzed different workers’ compensation datasets. The most common long-term COVID symptoms included shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness, and cognitive and memory problems.

Women appeared to be at greater risk than men, such as those who became ill enough to be hospitalized from their first infection and those with pre-existing conditions such as lung disease, hypertension, obesity and depression. Adults older than 60 are less likely to continue working than younger workers, which may indicate that some long-term COVID patients retire early and increase workforce shortages, Bach said.

Overall, David Cutler, a professor of economics at Harvard who studied the cost of long-term COVID and was not involved in the study, said, “The report shows that even if COVID deaths decrease, COVID is not and will not be over for a period of time.”

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