An article in The Washington Post addresses some of the looming, unquantifiable costs associated with long-haul COVID.
The main point of the WP article was to highlight the struggles for funding and prioritization any effort for COVID will face given historical problems encountered getting support for other chronic medical issues and related disabilities. The country took a long time to address smaller scale problems.
As horrifying as the potential for a million deaths was at the beginning and the ACTUAL death of a million people (and counting…) from the virus from our current vantage point, these longer term problems have been more frightening to me since the existence of long-haul cases became widely understood three to four months into the pandemic. Frightening from a personal standpoint (a family member contracted COVID in late October 2020 and has brain fog, fatigue and wildly out of control heart rates since) and from a more detached, objective perspective.
None of the math underlying this problem is good in the short term or long term.
In the short term, the world has already demonstrated exactly what most expected – that we suck at properly understanding exponential problems and taking appropriate actions for them, including the spread of a contagious virus affected by multiple factors:
- basic infectiousness of the virus itself
- the delay between a person becoming infected and becoming infectious
- the delay between infection and recognizable symptoms
- the variability in the symptoms (ranging from nearly nothing to catastrophic)
Now more and more studies are confirming what long-haulers have been experiencing since May-June 2020. Yet research into the causes and investigation of possible treatments is poorly organized even after two years have passed. The problems caused by long haul have HUGE macroeconomic impacts on the labor force. Patients with heart and lung issues may be unable to perform physically demanding tasks such as construction, operating machinery, etc. Patients with brain fog issues may be unable to consistently perform “think-work” such as software development, legal / medical practice, etc.
Getting a majority of the public to understand the risks posed by a virus with that many variables – which everyone presumed would have their impact in 2-4 days and run their course over 2-4 weeks – proved immensely difficult. Getting that same public to also factor in the non-zero chance that even if they get COVID and suffer a nasty bout of it for 3-5 days and seemingly recover they may turn up with more chronic problems in 6-12 months or in 3-5 years will be impossible.
When you look at the numbers of those that may have long-haul issues, the impacts could be staggering in a country already facing labor shortages, low birth rates and low immigration rates. As previously analyzed here
studies already show an “excess burden” of 45 per 1000 patients of extra problems with covid patients versus a control group that were not exposed to COVID. As of April 2022, roughly 80 million Americans have been infected with COVID. That means roughly 3.6 million patients could be lurking with existing long-haul cases or face elevated risks of chronic problems in the coming years from having been infected with COVID.
There is no way to know the absolute cost of this damage done to the workforce but it may be instructional to look at a few numbers, multiply a few together and see what pops out.
The average full-time American worker makes about $69,000 in wages / salary per year. Even if chronic COVID issues only impacts ten percent of their available working hours, 3.6 million average workers losing ten percent of their work would be 3.6M x .1 x 69,000 or $24.8 billion dollars PER YEAR. And even if 100% of those workers have disability coverage at work (yea, RIGHT), that still means the employer is at a minimum paying for hours not worked OR paying twice – once for the patient and a second time for someone else to cover their work, if another worker can be found. The same number holds true if only ten percent of all long haulers become unable to work entirely while all other long-haulers can work without productivity issues. No one has any idea what the numbers of this formula should be but it seems clear the actual percentage will not be zero and any non-zero number equates to billions per year in costs measured by lost productivity, much less actual costs for attempting to treat these patients.
Research on causes and treatments for long-haul COVID seems stumped for many reasons but primarily because the symptoms of long-haul are not easily quantified and enumerated by tests – very akin to chronic fatigue syndrome. While studies at key medical centers may be concentrating talent and dollars to work the problem, the edges of the medical system seem to be actively discarding inputs into that research via primary care physicians who downplay symptoms which cannot be consistently tested / confirmed.
Worrisome to say the least.