“We should be worried”

COVID

More than 1 million people could be unemployed at any given time, says David Cutler.

A sign warns people of a Covid-19 testing site in Times Square on May 3 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Even as some of the impact of COVID-19 on daily life is fading, the pandemic is still gripping the economy, according to a Harvard economist.

Long COVID in particular has the potential to have wide-ranging and long-lasting impacts on the economy, said David Cutler, a Harvard economics professor who focuses on health economics.

In a recent article titled “The Costs of Long COVID” for the JAMA Health Forum, Cutler explains how the large number of people likely to face some degree of long COVID symptoms is affecting overall health, affect the job market and push up medical costs.

Cutler told Boston.com the article is an attempt to understand the impact of COVID and doesn’t present all the answers because no one has the answers yet.

“Based on what the literature says, is that something we should be concerned about?” Cutler asked. “And unfortunately the answer is yes, we should be concerned about that. Because from what we know so far, it affects a lot of people and the consequences could be very serious.”

Cutler says he sees three different types of economic outcomes and impacts from Long COVID. Firstly, the health consequences.

“The health outcome has an economic cost because people like being healthy,” Cutler said. “The primary consequence of impaired health, or a major consequence of impaired health, is simply that people want to be in better health.”

It is difficult to estimate how long people have had COVID, but UK population data suggest that 22% to 38% of people infected with COVID have at least one COVID symptom 12 weeks after symptoms started, and 12% to 17% will have three or more symptoms, Cutler said.

Even at the lower estimate, with only 12% of people having three symptoms 12 weeks after infection, of the 82 million estimated cases in the United States, about 9.8 million people remain with long COVID.

Aside from the health consequences of Long COVID, Cutler said there are implications for the job market — the more people affected by Long COVID, the less effective they are in the workforce.

Some people with long COVID may not be as productive at work or may have trouble concentrating and often get tired, Cutler said. A survey by the COVID-19 Longhauler Advocacy Project found that 44% of people with long-haul COVID were unemployed and 51% were able to work fewer hours.

Analysis by Brookings shows that at any given time, more than 1 million people could be out of the labor force due to long-standing COVID, a labor supply loss that Cutler said accounts for more than $50 billion in lost income each year would.

“This reduction in labor supply is a direct loss of income,” Cutler wrote. “People unemployed because of long COVID worked disproportionately in service occupations, including healthcare, social care and retail. The much-publicized labor shortages in these industries are driving up both wages and prices.”

That could be contributing to the recent spike in inflation, Cutler said.

People who can no longer work can also apply for disability insurance at higher rates, Cutler said. So far there hasn’t been a sustained increase in disability insurance claims, but “it needs to be watched” as the pandemic continues.

The third economic consequence Cutler sees is the impact on medical spending.

“People will spend more on medical care than they otherwise would and that’s something we have a reasonable guess about because there are things [we can compare it to] … like chronic fatigue syndrome,” Cutler said.

If treatment costs are similar to chronic fatigue syndrome treatment, the estimated cost could be about $9,000 per person per year, Cutler said.

In October 2020, Cutler wrote a paper with colleague Larry Summers estimating the cost of COVID-19 to the US at approximately $16 trillion.

“That looks about right, unfortunately,” Cutler said. “A fair part of that has been long COVID costs.”

The high cost of dealing with long-running COVID reinforces the value of upfront investments to treat and prevent new infections, Cutler said.

“You could tell me the cost of prevention and surveillance and so on is $100 million and I don’t care, compared to a few trillion. You could tell me the cost is a billion dollars and I don’t care,” Cutler said. “The implications are so great that no matter how much you spend on prevention and surveillance and stuff like that, you almost never come across a case where you don’t want to do it, if it were going to be effective at all.”

https://www.boston.com/news/coronavirus/2022/05/17/harvard-economist-on-the-costs-of-long-covid-we-should-worry-about-it/ “We should be worried”

Rick Schindler

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