Long COVID extends pandemic's effect, with $170b in lost wages, report finds

Between 2 and 4 million people in the United States can't work because of the long-term debilitating effects of COVID-19, costing the economy up to $170 billion a year in lost wages, according to a report.

The report by the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington was done in January and released in August.

William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University medical center in Nashville, Tennessee, told China Daily that long COVID can take a variety of forms. "Feeling fatigued is one of them, or not very strong, easy tiredness, a desire to nap and sleep longer-and that's consistent with recovering from a major inflammatory event that occurred within the body," Schaffner said.

"People don't seem to get fever but they have aches and pains. People feel as though they are not as limber as they were before. Other people can get some skin manifestations or a rash … a redness of toes that suddenly occurs but wanes over time. There are people whose loss of taste and smell can take quite a while to abate."

Schaffner added that there seems to be very substantial variation among these people.

In June, the US Census Bureau added questions about long COVID in its Household Pulse Survey to find out how many people were affected.

It found that at least 16 million people aged between 18 and 65 are estimated to suffer from long COVID. At least 10 percent to 30 percent of the population will develop the illness after getting the coronavirus.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that 70 percent of people in the US have contracted COVID-19. This means that 24.1 percent of them may have already had long COVID, which equates to 34 million working-age people.

Worsening prospects

The Brookings report warns that "these impacts stand to worsen over time if the US does not take the necessary policy actions".

David Cutler, a health economist and professor at Harvard University, estimates that the illness could cost the country $3.7 trillion. His findings on the number of people out of work and the cost were similar to those of the Brookings Institution.

In his report, "The Economic Cost of Long COVID: An Update", Cutler looked at the cost of having long COVID, lost quality of life, lost earnings and medical expenses.

His study cited research that 12 percent to 17 percent of COVID-19 patients are still experiencing three or more symptoms 12 weeks after onset, and that the labor force reduction among those with significant impairment is 70 percent.

Using COVID-19 cases and the number of people in the labor force, Cutler estimated that 3.5 million people are out of work due to long COVID for a five-year lost wage cost of $1 trillion, or around $200 billion a year.

Cutler wrote: "The total cost of long COVID is $3.7 trillion, 59 percent of the cost is lost quality of life; the remainder is reduced earnings and greater medical spending. The total amount is roughly $11,000 per person." He added that "the enormity of these costs implies that policy to address long COVID are urgently needed".

Doctors and public health officials are still investigating long COVID, including how long it lasts, and how it impacts different people's health. There isn't yet a standardized treatment for it.

Data from the US Department of Labor also shows there are currently about 600,000 fewer workers than there were in the labor force in 2000. This could be due to illnesses.