Long COVID is having significant impact on the workforce

3 years later, nearly 18% of long COVID patients haven’t returned to work

With reports of workplace staffing shortages across nearly all industries, companies have been increasing pay to entice potential employees, but it may not be enough. A recent study found a significant number of former workers are out of the workforce due to the lasting effects of long COVID. A detailed analysis found that 71% of claimants with long COVID were still continuing medical treatment and unable to return to work for six months or more.

The Government Accountability Office estimates between 7.7 million and 23 million Americans have been affected by long COVID. The total number of people with long COVID is likely undercounted by this study, because it focused on patients requiring medical attention or out of work for 60 or more days. The study’s authors said the numbers aren’t capturing people who have gone back to work and didn’t seek medical attention, but are toughing it out at work, while dealing with symptoms like brain fog.

Based on these statistics, the future health of the American economy is dependent on the health of its workforce, especially the ability to overcome the debilitating impact of long COVID.

Since its founding in August 2021, Hackensack Meridian Health’s COVID Recovery Center at Hackensack University Medical Center has treated close to 400 patients for long COVID, a post-infection inflammatory syndrome. Long COVID patients have a wide range of symptoms, but the most common reasons for seeking treatment at the COVID Recovery Center include brain fog, fatigue and shortness of breath, especially with exertion.

Brain fog associated with long COVID is the most common reason patients are unable to return to work.

“Brain fog patients have trouble with short-term memory, and completing tasks which require calculations or sequential steps,” Dr. Jonathan Shammash, medical director of HMH’s COVID Recovery Center, and director, internal medicine resident practice, at Hackensack University Medical Center, said. “Some patients forget where they are when they are out walking or driving. It can be debilitating and a major reason long COVID patients haven’t returned to work.”

Other reasons long COVID patients remain outside of the workforce are fatigue and shortness of breath, especially in jobs that require physical exertion.

The COVID Recovery Center comprehensively reviews patients’ symptoms and treatment history, reviews their test results, assesses their prior treatments and discusses further treatment options. As neuro-inflammation is thought to be the driving cause of long COVID, the center is focusing on therapies to modulate or decrease inflammation in the nervous system. Based on small published research studies, treatment options include the use of antihistamines, fish oil and other medications that may modulate the immune system or decrease inflammation. Patients are educated regarding a low-histamine diet, which includes avoiding foods like eggplant, spinach, tomato and avocado. Patients are closely monitored through follow-up visits either in person or through telehealth.

Brain fog is also treated with brain training apps including Lumosity, Elevate, Peak and even Wordle.

For patients who have experienced loss of taste or smell due to COVID, the COVID Recovery Center offers sensitization programs, exposing patients to five scents in aromatherapy.

“The good news is that patients seem to respond over time to all of this,” Shammash said. “We’ve seen over weeks to months that, with proper rest and adequate treatment, patients and their ability to perform their work and activities of daily living can improve.”

The Hackensack Meridian Health COVID Recovery Center maintains a database of long COVID cases to follow patients’ clinical progress. The center continues to explore opportunities for clinical research, and educates patients as to available external research, including the National Institute of Health RECOVER Study.