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Long COVID is costing Idaho thousands of full-time workers, data suggest

A McDonald’s restaurant in downtown Boise advertised $11 hourly wages in spring 2021. By summer 2022, that was up to $15 an hour. The cost of labor has risen as jobs go unfilled. A new report based on census data suggests long COVID could be one cause of worker shortages. (Audrey Dutton, Idaho Capital Sun)

New census data and a Brookings Institution analysis show potential harm to jobs

An estimated 7.8% to 10.5% of all Idaho adults were suffering from the aftereffects of COVID-19 infections this summer, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Those estimates are based on Idahoans’ self-reported experiences with COVID-19 and “long COVID,” in a new round of surveys the bureau rolled out between June and August. At the time, increasingly infectious versions of the omicron coronavirus variant spread through Idaho.

Idaho adults were far more likely to report ongoing health problems from COVID-19 than the national average of 7.5% to 7.6%.

“Long COVID” is a constellation of lingering medical issues that can range from loss of smell and taste, to debilitating symptoms that a growing number of studies attribute to COVID-19’s damage to the heart, lungs, circulatory system, brain and other organs.

The Idaho Capital Sun reported last month that, based on a fraction of Idaho’s insurance claims, a minimum of 1,400 Idahoans needed health care for long COVID since October.

And a new report from The Brookings Institution suggests that long COVID is one of the drivers of an ongoing labor crisis.

It is part of a growing body of research on the economic impacts of COVID-19. Economists on Monday published findings that long COVID has taken at least 500,000 workers out of the U.S. labor force.

Analysis: Long COVID dented Idaho’s labor force

Based on the nationwide census data, which was broken down by age group, the Brookings report estimated that as many as 4 million people are out of work in the U.S. because of post-infection COVID-19 health conditions.

Using the same formula as the Brookings report, a Sun analysis found that long COVID may have taken 7,800 to 17,800 of Idaho’s full-time employees out of the labor force.

“Since the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic through today, news about labor shortages and missing workers has dominated headlines,” the report said. “The question everyone still seems to be asking is: Why?”

Researchers have tried to answer that question, and a January report from Brookings looked at the potential role of COVID-19. At that time, Brookings estimated that “long COVID” could have taken more than 1 million people out of the labor force — accounting for as much as 15% of the unfilled jobs at the time.

But earlier this year, the U.S. Census Bureau began to survey Americans about COVID-19 and how it affected them. The answers were illuminating, the Brookings report said. The census data suggested about 2 million to 4 million American adults under age 65 were out of work due to long COVID in June and July.

That takes an economic toll, the Brookings report said: an estimated $105 billion to $235 billion per year in lost wages alone.

The report referenced a study from a Harvard University economist who estimated the total cost of long COVID on the U.S. economy: more than $3 trillion, including $1 trillion in net lost income, as people recover from COVID-19 but have lingering health issues that affect their ability to work.

“These impacts stand to worsen over time if the U.S. does not take the necessary policy actions,” the Brookings report said.

The report recommended five policy actions:

  • Better prevention and treatment options
  • Expanded paid sick leave
  • Better accommodations for employees with disabilities from long COVID
  • Improved access to disability benefits and Medicare health insurance
  • More data, such as through collaboration between federal census, labor statistics and health researchers.

“The government should take the threat of long COVID as seriously as the numbers show it to be,” the Brookings report said, “starting with the recommendations above and continuing until we can fully treat and neutralize the condition’s economic and personal health impacts.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.