Long COVID is Partly to Blame for Workforce Shortages

By Carol Davis

The effects of long COVID are keeping needed employees out of the workforce, a recent study indicates.

Some 71% of claimants with long COVID were still receiving treatment and unable to return to work for six months or more, according to data from the New York State Insurance Fund (NYSIF), the largest worker compensation insurance fund in the state.

The study analyzed more than 3,000 COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims received by NYSIF between January 1, 2020, and March 31, 2022.

Other study data revealed:

  • About 18% have been unable to return to work for more than one year.
  • The percentage of long COVID among female workers (37%) was 11% higher than in male workers (26%).
  • Nearly one-third of all workers compensation claims in 2022 were for long COVID.
  • Most claimants in this group are under 60 years of age—the primary age for people in the workforce.
  • Essential workers may have long COVID rates higher than the data suggests.

The total number of people affected by long COVID likely is undercounted by this study, because it focused on patients requiring medical attention or out of work for 60 or more days, the study’s authors said.

The numbers aren’t capturing people who have gone back to work and didn’t seek medical attention, but are toughing it out at work, while dealing with symptoms such as brain fog, the authors said.

Indeed, brain fog associated with long COVID is the most common reason patients are unable to return to work, one COVID doctor said.

“Brain fog patients have trouble with short-term memory and completing tasks which require calculations or sequential steps,” said Jonathan Shammash, MD, MACP, medical director of Hackensack Meridian Health’s COVID Recovery Center and director of Internal Medicine Resident Practice at Hackensack University Medical Center.

“Some patients forget where they are when they are out walking or driving,” Shammash said. “It can be debilitating and a major reason long COVID patients haven’t returned to work.”

Between 7.7 million and 23 million Americans are estimated to have been affected by long COVID, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Broadly reflective, these findings begin to fill information gaps about the labor market, including an underappreciated reason for the many unfilled jobs and the declining labor participation rate since the emergence of the pandemic,” the authors wrote.

“They also highlight the emerging challenges that employees of all ages and employers across all sectors face as a growing number of people return to work while still reeling from the effects of COVID-19.”

Long COVID symptoms

The post-COVID syndrome known as long COVID is associated with multiple organ systems, tissue damage, and wide-ranging symptoms that can vary in duration, type, and severity.

Long COVID has four major subtypes defined by different clusters of symptoms, according to a study—the largest of its kind—led by researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Of the four major patterns detected, one featured heart and kidney problems; another included respiratory problems, anxiety, and sleep disorders; a third consisted of musculoskeletal symptoms; and the fourth was dominated by nervous system symptoms.

Given long COVID’s potentially debilitating effects, the Biden Administration has organized a governmentwide response to address long COVID, and federal agencies now recognize the condition as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Carol Davis is the Nursing Editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.