Maybe (Some of) the Missing Workers Have Long COVID?

There’ a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over where the missing workers have gone–by some counts, seven million (boldface mine):

The great mystery of this moment is the labor shortage. America’s GDP is larger than it was in February 2020. But the total economy is down about 7 million workers. That’s akin to the entire labor force of Pennsylvania sitting on the sidelines. In September, the number of people working or actively looking for work mysteriously declined, which is not what you would expect to see in a rapidly growing economy with simmering inflation. Wages are rising. Job openings are everywhere. But we’re running out of people who seem to want a job right now….

That might sound like a stupid question, on account of this is a pandemic. More than 10,000 Americans are still dying of COVID-19 every week. Tens of thousands more are sick from recent infections or lingering symptoms. Millions more might be scared of throwing their body in front of the coronavirus by going back to work among rude customers who might refuse vaccines, masks, or any sense of human decency. Finally, more than 700,000 people have died from COVID-19, and although it’s ghoulish to treat these deaths predominantly as a loss for the labor force, that the virus has killed many American workers is nonetheless undeniable.

One reason I haven’t seen addressed is disability due to ‘long COVID’, debilitating symptoms that last for months (and hopefully not permanently). As I’ll lay out, the author is massively underestimating the number of people with long COVID.

Monday, I wrote about a study which looked at cognitive impairment in people who had tested positive for COVID, and, even among the outpatient group, the percentage of outpatients who had long term cognitive problems was not trivial (at a minimum, five percent). It’s important to note what cognitive impairment means. In one of the tests (there are multiple tests), patients are asked to connect a series of twenty circles on a piece of paper containing the numbers 1-25 in increasing order. A ‘bad score’ is that this task takes around 75 seconds or longer (typically, it takes people around 29 seconds). Unless I were physically impaired (i.e., couldn’t hold the pencil), I can’t imagine this taking 75 seconds. That’s what cognitively impaired means. I can’t imagine holding a job with that level of disability. This is not like having a couple of bad nights of sleep: this is dementia-level impairment (the tests are commonly used to screen for dementia).

Mind you, that study only assessed cognitive impairment, not physical disability like debilitating fatigue or excruciating headaches. It also looked at a younger population (i.e., wasn’t focused on the elderly, or near-elderly). So a reasonable estimate is that five percent of those who have been infected with COVID are suffering from long-term disability. In the U.S., 26 million people aged 18-64 have tested positive for COVID (that would be about 12.5% of that cohort). Given the massive undertesting in many parts of the U.S. (but not D.C.!*), that probably should be at least fifty million. Five percent of that is, well, a lot of people. And that five percent (give or take) will be disproportionately found in certain sectors (haven’t seen any stories about the Great Lawyer Shortage, but I could have missed them…).

Now, you might wonder why that’s not reflected in other statistics, especially since the U.S. has a generous benefits system and doesn’t stigmatize disability, so…

Ok, then. Moving along…

While one can quibble with my numbers (and, of course, they could be higher–five percent might be conservative), the point still remains: there are a lot of workers who can’t work, or whose work options have become (very) restricted. We have to start dealing with this. We also have to stop with the kinder, gentler Greater Barrington Declaration crap some Thinky Thought Leaders are promulgating: a few million long-term or permanently disabled people is worth worrying about, especially in an America as broken and cruel as ours.

*While much of D.C.’s colonial response has been mediocre at best, D.C. really has excelled at testing throughout the pandemic (though the turnaround time, at various points, wasn’t great).

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