500,000 sidelined by COVID-19, with effects to haunt more, study warns

Restaurants, such as this McDonald's outlet in Garden Grove, California, on July 8, are among US businesses needing more workers. (ROBYN BECK / AFP)

The US labor force has lost about 500,000 workers due to illnesses related to COVID-19 and even more people may be unable to work in the future if they develop long-term complications from the virus, according to a study.

The findings on the severity of COVID-19 and illnesses associated with it were made in the study, The Impacts of COVID-19 Illnesses on Workers, released this month by economists Gopi Shah Goda from Stanford University and Evan Soltas from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

They wrote that the loss in the workforce is 0.2 percent of adults and implies an average forgone earnings per COVID-19 absence of at least $9,000.

More than 57 million people in the US have contracted COVID-19, with about 250,000 deaths among working-age adults by July, the study, which hasn't been peer reviewed, found.

Goda suggests that workers who had to take a week or more off work due to COVID-19 did so because they had developed so-called long COVID or other health problems.

"An emerging body of medical research finds that many who fall ill but survive COVID-19 suffer from enduring health problems," the study said.

The study authors looked at 300,000 workers over the 14 months to June using data from the Census Bureau's monthly household survey.

They recorded information about employees who were absent from work for a week or longer with COVID-19. They found that about 10 workers per 1,000 missed a week of work due to health reasons, from March 2020 to June 2022. This was up from six per 1,000 on average in the decade before the pandemic.

The study didn't consider anyone who missed work to care for a family member with COVID-19, those who missed less than a week of work, or those who died from the virus. If it did include this data, the labor force would have decreased by 750,000 people, or 0.3 percent, the authors said.

They said that while many in government and the media have speculated that such post-acute conditions have reduced labor supply, "data limitations have made it difficult to assess these impacts and the economic costs of COVID-19 illnesses more broadly".

High price to pay

David Cutler, a health economist and professor at Harvard University, estimates that COVID-19 and its related illnesses could ultimately cost the country $3.7 trillion if nothing is done.

William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, told China Daily: " (Long COVID) can take a variety of forms, feeling fatigued …easy tiredness … skin manifestations or a rash … Others have headaches and some say they are not as quick as they used to be or have fuzziness in thinking."

Separate research published in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases on Sept 9 by a team of Harvard University researchers found that the virus lingers longer in the bodies of those who develop long COVID.

In some, the virus has also been found in the lungs, the lining of the gut and in the brain, according to scientists. The immune system of those with the leftover virus develops additional symptoms such as inflammation and blood clots that ultimately contribute to their diagnosis of long COVID.

A group of scientists and doctors have teamed up to research the viral persistence of COVID-19.The group is run by the PolyBio Research Foundation, a nonprofit focused on complex chronic inflammatory diseases based in Mercer Island, Washington state.

The University of California, Los Angeles, estimates that at least 10 percent to 30 percent of the population will develop long COVID after getting COVID-19.