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Long COVID keeps many people from working, study finds


Long COVID is having a significant effect on the U.S. workforce, preventing a significant number of people from returning to work while others continue to need medical care long after returning to work, according to a new analysis of workers compensation claims in New York State.

The study, released Tuesday by New York’s largest workers’ compensation insurer, found that in the first two years of the pandemic, about 71% of people the fund classified as suffering from long COVID 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 had still not returned to work, more than three-quarters of them were under the age of 60, according to the analysis.

“Long COVID has hurt the workforce,” says the report from the New York State Insurance Fund, a state agency funded by employer-paid premiums. The results, he added, “highlight the long COVID as an underappreciated but important reason for the many unfilled jobs and declining labor force participation rate in the economy, and they portend a possible reduction in productivity as employers feel the strains of an increasingly sick workforce.”

The report, which analyzed COVID-related claims from patients exposed to the virus at work, filed between January 1, 2020 and March 31, 2022 and paid by the agency, provides insight into the problem. The agency, one of the 10 largest workers’ compensation insurers in the nation, found that nearly a third of the 3,139 COVID-related claims it paid met its definition of long COVID.

Patients were covered by the fund if they tested positive for coronavirus and the agency or a workers’ compensation board determined they were at high risk of having been exposed to the virus at work, usually in environments such such as hospitals, grocery stores or public transport systems. The report classified a case as long COVID if, after infection, a patient required medical treatment for 60 days or more or lost 60 days or more from work.

“It’s a pretty conservative estimate,” said Gaurav Vasisht, executive director and CEO of the insurance fund. “It’s not about capturing people who may have gone back to work and haven’t seen a doctor and may still be in pain, so you know, they’re just getting tougher.”

During the reporting period, claims for the 977 people the fund has designated as having long COVID cost about $17 million of the roughly $20 million paid out to all COVID patients, officials said, adding that the proportion of wage loss was slightly higher than for medical treatment. But Vasisht warned that the dollar amounts only provided a partial picture because it was unclear how long people would need medical attention or time off for a long stretch of COVID.

He added that the cost to patients goes beyond money. “The longer you are out of work, the harder it is for you to return to work, and that can stigmatize patients,” Vasisht said. “It could be very disruptive to their family and professional life.”

Long COVID is defined by public health authorities as a constellation of symptoms that persist after initial infection or appear weeks later and can include breathing problems, fatigue, and brain fog. The Government Accountability Office estimated that the long COVID affected 7.7 million to 23 million people in the United States.

Katie Bach, a senior nonresident researcher at the Brookings Institution who was not involved in the report, said the study showed that “we have a group of people who have had long COVID and at least until present have not been able to return to work, and that is a significant number of people.

She said the report reflected only part of the workforce: employees exposed to the virus in the workplace and knowledgeable enough about workers’ compensation to file claims. That could include employees who are younger or sicker than the overall workforce, while also missing other workers with long COVID, said Bach, whose own research suggests that about 500,000 people in the United States United not working due to long COVID.

The New York report also found optimistic signals. Since the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020, long-lasting COVID cases have declined as a percentage of workers’ compensation claims and COVID-related claims. The decrease has coincided with the advent of vaccines, which studies suggest reduce the risk of long-lasting COVID, and with new treatments for coronaviruses, supporting the idea that if people can avoid getting seriously ill from their initial infection, they are less likely to suffer long-term symptoms.

Still, Vasisht said the agency continued to receive claims for workers with long COVID, particularly after a spike in infections. The report also suggests that more employees than the data reflects may have met the criteria for long COVID claims. The vast majority of all COVID-related claims, more than 83%, were filed by essential workers – in professions like healthcare, law enforcement and security services. But only 29% of their claims met the definition of long COVID, while 44% of non-essential workers met that definition.

This could be because “essential workers may not have been able to stay home beyond the required quarantine period,” the report said. And healthcare workers may have “self-treated their symptoms” rather than seeking medical attention, the report said, adding that “essential workers may have higher long-term COVID rates than data suggest, creating a blind spot for decision-makers”.

“A lot of people can’t afford not to work and so they work when they really shouldn’t, continuing to work while they’re sick,” Bach said. She said the experience of people with similar post-viral conditions such as myalgic encephalomyelitis and chronic fatigue syndrome suggests that some people who work despite their long COVID may have more difficult recoveries. When people with an illness whose hallmark symptoms are fatigue and brain fog get busy, they won’t be as productive and they’ll likely reduce their chances of improvement,” she said.

And because 40% of applicants with long COVID returned to work within 60 days of being infected while receiving medical treatment, Vasisht said employers may receive “more requests for reduced hours or other arrangements”.

The study also found that doctors only used a specific long COVID diagnosis code in 30 cases, even though the code was added to the International Classification of Diseases in October 2021. “Doctors underuse the ICD code “, said Vasisht, adding that he believed his organization “can do a lot of good by carrying out activities to raise awareness among the community of doctors and informing them of the research on the long COVID and also the existence of this ICD code”.

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

Women appeared to be at greater risk than men, as did people who got sick enough from their initial infection to be hospitalized and those who previously suffered from lung disease, hypertension, obesity and depression. Adults over 60 were less likely to return to work than younger employees, which may indicate some long-term COVID patients are retiring early, adding to labor shortages, a said Bach.

Overall, said David Cutler, a Harvard economics professor who has studied the cost of long COVID and was not involved in the study, “The report shows that even though COVID deaths are down, COVID is not over, and it won’t be for some time.”

startribune Gt Itly

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