As Long Covid cases rise, so do costs

The U.S. continues to reassess Covid-19 and address it as a long-term problem rather than a public health crisis, even suspending the free testing program on September 2. Schools and colleges are relaxing all Covid mandates, even vaccinations. In the midst of this quest to normalize life despite an average of 100,000 new cases of Covid reported every day in the U.S., troubling new details have emerged about the parallel pandemic of Long Covid.

As PGN reported in an in-depth three-part series in April, Long Covid impacts millions of Americans, with disproportionate numbers among women, Black and LGBTQ people, and those between 25 and 45. 

Long Covid, also referred to as long-haul or post-Covid according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is when patients experience “a wide range of ongoing health problems,” sometimes for weeks, months, or years after recovering from a severe Covid-19 illness.

Dr. Tom Frieden, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the Obama administration and the former health commissioner of New York City, has sounded the alarm on Long Covid, noting on Twitter, “Estimates suggest 10-30% or more of people who get infected with Covid develop long-term symptoms. We’re continuing to learn more about Long Covid, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about the condition and how to help people who are suffering.”

CDC data found that one in 13 adults in the U.S. have symptoms that last at least three months after they first contracted the virus. Another earlier CDC report detailed how one in five Covid-19 survivors between the ages of 18 and 64, and one in four survivors aged 65 or older, have a health condition that may be related to their previous bout of Covid. 

New data from the CDC said as of Aug. 8, between 14% and 15.4% of U.S. residents have experienced Long Covid. Data also found that the likelihood of having Long Covid was higher in some states. In Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has fought all mandates or restrictions due to Covid and his surgeon general has recommended against vaccines, the percentage ranged from 15.4% to 21.5% as of Aug. 8, compared to the national range capping out at 15.4%. 

Along with this alarming new data comes another report, this one from

the Brookings Institute, an American research non-profit based in

Washington, D.C. Brookings examined the data and employment trends over the Covid-19 pandemic.

This new Brookings analysis reported as many as 16.3 million working-age U.S. citizens, from 18 to 65 years old, have Long Covid. Concomitant with that finding is that Long Covid is keeping as many as 4 million people out of work in the U.S. The annual cost of those lost wages alone is around $170 billion a year and potentially as high as $230 billion, Brookings reports. But on a personal level, as PGN reported, individuals are shattered financially and in other ways by the disease. 

The report shows that workers suffering from Long Covid comprise about 8% of Americans old enough to work, with 2 to 4 million unable to work as a result of the illness. Symptoms of Long Covid include extreme tiredness and fatigue; shortness of breath; difficulty thinking or concentrating, also known as “brain fog”; headaches; muscle pain and more. All these symptoms can impair workers’ ability to do their job.

Brookings reported about 15% of the open positions in the U.S. were going unfilled in a “conservative estimate” as a result of Long Covid.

The impact of Long Covid on people’s ability to work may in fact explain why the U.S. has experienced so many worker shortages during the pandemic. In August, the U.S. had approximately 600,000 fewer workers compared with February 2020, the last month before the total economic shutdown that in turn created massive layoffs and other job cuts.

People with Long Covid who PGN interviewed all experienced varying levels of severe illness and all were unable to work. Some had been several incapacitated by the disease for over a year. 

Brookings reported a Minneapolis Fed study which found that 25.9% of people with Long Covid have had their work “impacted,” which was defined as being either out of work or working reduced hours. 

Then a survey from the U.K.’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that 20% of people with Long Covid weren’t working with an additional 16% working reduced hours. 

A study published in The Lancet medical journal found that 22% of people with Long Covid were unable to work due to ill health, and another 45% had to reduce their hours. 

While assessing the numbers, volume of workers, and overall cost of these sick people, the Brookings report also tried to assess what, if anything, could ameliorate the circumstances for both the job market and people with Long Covid. 

Brookings noted changes would depend on “The availability and accessibility of improved treatment options that increase the Long Covid recovery rate or move people from ‘severely ill’ to ‘moderately’ or ‘mildly’ ill.”

Also, notes the report, determining whether vaccines reduce the odds of getting Long Covid or whether repeat infections carry additional Long Covid risk would also be factors.

There is still no standardized treatment for Long Covid or even a specific test for it. The San Francisco Chronicle reported August 27 that “Long Covid victims are turning to pricey, unproven treatments,” with some paying exorbitant amounts for help. 

“One man has already spent a remarkable $100,000 on untested therapies and do-it-yourself remedies in hopes of conquering Long Covid,” the Chronicle reported, adding, “The barrage of post-viral symptoms turned the financial analyst into a de facto old man since he got the virus a year ago. ‘I was so desperate that I didn’t care if it killed me’,” he told the Chronicle.

The Brookings report runs parallel to the Chronicle story in that it provides the volume of data that these individual stories, like those PGN told, exemplify.

Yet the Brookings report also suggests mitigation that the CDC appears to have chosen to walk back or ignore, like masking, vaccine and booster mandates, air purifiers and more treatment options, like nasal vaccines.

Brookings also calls for expanded paid sick leave, improved workplace accommodations, wider access to disability insurance, and enhanced data collection on Long Covid’s economic effects. 

From an economic standpoint, the report is grim: “If the Long Covid population increases by just 10% each year, in 10 years, the annual cost of lost wages will be half a trillion dollars.” Brookings pleads for the government to “take the threat of Long Covid as seriously as the numbers show it to be.” 

The effects of Long Covid are not just a loss to the economy, however. They also have a human toll, one which has yet to be resolved. 

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