Three years ago, COVID-19 burst onto the world stage, bringing with us many unknowns, including the lingering aftermath of the infection. Although we know much more than we did in early 2020, there is much left to learn, and the virus continues to throw us curve balls.
Three new reports provide updates of the economic impact of “long COVID,” which affects lives, livelihoods, and the larger economy long after the acute infection has passed. The impact is greater than initially estimated.
A Disorder in Search of a Definition
Although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines long COVID as symptoms lasting more than four weeks after initial exposure to SARS-CoV-2, there is [no universally recognized clinical definition] (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/long-term-effects/index.html).
A more conservative categorization of long COVID defines the condition as one or more symptoms lasting more than 12 weeks after the onset of virus exposure.
Between 22% and 38% of those infected are believed to have long COVID with at least one symptom 12 weeks or more after initial exposure. Between 12% and 17% of those infected have three or more symptoms after 12 weeks. Given that the majority of Americans have contracted COVID, according to the CDC, this prevalence translates to 9.6 million people living with multiple symptoms of long COVID.
Using the broader definition, an August 2022 Brookings Metro study estimates that 16 million people of working age have long COVID and as many as 4 million are out of work due to long COVID.
Economic Impact: $3.7 Trillion
Even with the nebulous definitions, the significant economic impact of long COVID is clear. In July 2022 update of earlier figures, David Cutler of Harvard University estimates that the total economic cost of long COVID is $3.7 trillion. That’s $11,000 per capita or 17% of the 2019 gross domestic product (GDP).
Cutler subdivides these costs into three components:
- Quality of life (QALY), which comprises 59% of the overall cost, or $2.195 trillion
- Lost earnings of $997 billion
- Medical care spending: $528 billion
The Brookings report warns that Cutler’s estimate may actually be incomplete in that it does not include the economic impact of lower productivity (i.e., due to caretaking for others or working while ill).
Long COVID, Shorter Hours, Limited Opportunities
In a preliminary report by Dasom Ham of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis further breaks down the components of lost earnings, showing how long COVID has affected patients’ work hours and type of employment.
In brief, the Federal Reserve paper found that, compared with people without prior COVID infection, people with long COVID (defined conservatively as those with symptoms more than 12 weeks after virus exposure):
- Were 10 percentage points less likely to be employed
- Work 50% fewer hours than people
- Experienced greater impact in their employment status and work hours
The Value of Addressing Long COVID
As of July 2021, long COVID has been recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But unless we find better ways to detect, treat, and control long COVID, infections—and their long-haul consequences—will continue to take an economic toll. As Dr. Cutler concludes, the cost of addressing long COVID is bound to be a worthwhile investment, given the widespread, ongoing economic costs of this condition.
Ham DI. Long-Haulers and Labor Market Outcomes. Opportunity & Inclusive Growth Institute, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Institute Working Paper No. 60. July 2022.