Mystery of the missing workers? Long COVID a big piece of the puzzle

Authors: Michael E. Kanell, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Feb 19, 2022

She suffered cardiac arrest twice and was in the hospital for three months, then came home to more than a year of kidney problems and intermittent brain fog, tingling in her hands, numbness in her right foot and a need for oxygen after even modest exertion.

“Some days, I’m all right, but I can’t tell you which days I will feel good,” she said. “It’s all very frustrating because you know what you were capable of doing before.”

She is among many people with lingering COVID-19 aftereffects who cannot work or can only work part-time. The condition has been given a name: post-acute sequelae SARS-CoV-2 infection, or PASC.

But it is commonly called long COVID.

It may be the missing piece in a pandemic puzzle: Why has the number of people in the labor force lagged? Why are there still so many unfilled job openings?

Schroederused to supervise nursing students. Lately theMcDonoughresident has been volunteering to run concessions at some high school track meets, trying to edge back toward the workplace.

“It gives me a sense of normalcy,” she said. “But after last Saturday’s meet, I was bedridden for two days.”

While more than 900,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, the vast majority of people who contract it do survive. But many — between 10% and 30% of those who live, experts say — continue to struggle with symptoms.

That is a lot of people: up to 23 million nationwide and nearly 800,000 people in Georgia, according to estimates by the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Some don’t work. Some are still in the labor force, but at reduced hours.

Linda Rodin, a wellness specialist at an Atlanta-area supermarket, said she came down with COVID-19 in November. “I never had a fever, but it felt like the sinus infection from hell.”

The worst of it passed, but the symptoms clung to her. At one point in December,she said she stopped at a gas station and realized she had no idea how to put gas in the car. “I went back home sobbing hysterically. Things you’ve done your whole life, like tie your shoes, and suddenly are inaccessible. It is terrifying.”

She works part-time, grateful that her employer gave her that option.

Long COVID does not appear explicitly in the labor data. But there are clues.

  • The labor force in Georgia is still 28,341 below its pre-pandemic level, and the real gap is larger. At the pace of pre-pandemic growth, the labor force would be about 184,000 larger than it is today.
  • The number of people with jobs but out sick averaged 50% higher last year nationally than in 2019.
  • The number of people nationallywho usually work full-time but who are working part-time because of illness rose through last year. Since last summer, it has averaged 16% higher than pre-pandemic times.
  • The number of people who were out of the labor force with a disability is up 5.5%, or nearly 1.3 million, from the summer of 2020.
  • The Census Bureau’s most recent survey showed more than a quarter-million people in Georgia either sick or caring for someone with coronavirus symptoms.

Kathryn Bach, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has studied the issue, calculated that long COVID accounts for about 1.6 million people missing from the U.S. labor force. That’s equivalent to at least 15% of the nation’s job openings. By her calculation, about 45,000 people in Georgia are missing from the labor force because of long COVID.

“You could argue that my number is too low, I want to be conservative,” Bach said. “There is simply not enough data.”

Some long-haulers stay in the labor force, but just barely.

Joy McFather, a part-time teacher in Monroe County, caught what she thought was a mild case of COVID-19 at Christmas of 2020 and hasn’t been free of it since. “It’s been a roller-coaster ride of fatigue and brain fog,” she said. “It’ll get better and some weeks I’m good, then I’ll hit the wall and it will get worse.”

She’s taken 10 to 15 days off this past year, but has avoided any extended absences so far, she said. “I’ve been able to get myself through three days and on the fourth day, I crash.”

Symptoms of long COVID include debilitating fatigue, shortness of breath, pain and a “brain fog” that makes it hard to focus.

With most federal pandemic programs expired, a COVID “long-hauler” who cannot work can apply for disability. That challenging process is even tougher for a new disease, many of whose worst symptoms — like brain fog — are invisible.

“Things you’ve done your whole life, like tie your shoes, and suddenly are inaccessible. It is terrifying.”- Linda Rodin, who says that COVID-19 symptoms have clung to her

Not everyone is convinced that long COVID is a large part of the labor shortage. Daniel Altman, chief economist at Instawork, an app for skilled hourly professionals, is among the skeptics.

He said changes in the labor force do not match up with the waves of COVID-19 in the way you’d expect if each wave pushed people out of the workplace. Still, he acknowledged, the disconnect might be because of how the data are gathered.

“We have found that the Department of Labor doesn’t do a great job of tracking people who are going into flexible work. If someone is in and out of work because of long COVID, they may not show up as part of the workforce in the official statistics,” he said.

By the numbers: COVID-19 and U.S. workers

Confirmed cases, COVID-19: 78.1 million

Working-age deaths, U.S.: about 230,000

People in labor force, compared to pre-pandemic: down 1.4 million

Workers employed, but out of work because of illness, pre-pandemic: 1.1 million

Workers employed, but out of work because of illness, current: 3.6 million

At work part-time, usually work full-time, pre-pandemic: 2.4 million

At work part-time, usually work full-time, current: 4.2 million

COVID-19, Georgia workers

Confirmed cases: 1.9 million

Working-age deaths, Georgia: about 11,400

Labor force, compared to pre-pandemic: down 28,341

Sources: Centers for Disease Control, Bureau of Labor Statistics, St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, Census Bureau

Megan Gaskin has worked with COVID-19 cases since the pandemic’s start as a physician’s assistant at Piedmont Healthcare in Austell.

“It goes away, it comes back. It produces thousands of sick days. It is a beast,” she said.

When hit by the symptoms, about one in five can work from home, she said.

Experts say early retirement is the biggest single reason for people leaving the labor force, and long COVID is part of that, Gaskin said. She estimates long COVID accounts for about a quarter of early retirements.

More answers about the impact of long COVID are likely on the way.

A four-year National Institutes of Health study has just begun that will include about 1,000 Atlanta-area participants, said Igho Ofotokun, professor of medicine at Emory University, who is working on the study.

Long COVID is similar to some chronic diseases that doctors have seen before, and maybe in time, there will be effective treatments that send victims back to work, he said. “We don’t know enough yet to be able to tell.”

However, researchers are hoping to reach some conclusions later this year, Ofotokun said.

In the meantime, many employers struggle to find workers and many workers struggle.

Adrienne Levesque of Loganville had COVID-19 twice in 2020.

More than a year later, she still usually can’t work more than 20 or 25 hours a week.

As controller of a small, family-owned business, she must sometimes answer questions about a worker’s status, whether someone should be classified as employed and whether it’s full-time work. She looks at her own situation, someone who has larger responsibilities she often cannot fulfill, working part-time and productive in unpredictable bursts.

“How do I count myself?” she said.

How Manufacturers can Keep Employees Safe From COVID-19

Authors: Soumi Eachempati APR 27, 2021

A list of actions employers can take to maintain a healthy workforce and compliance.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is challenging for all organizations, manufacturers have had the especially daunting task of keeping their employees safe while keeping their businesses open. In the last 13 months, hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases have been reported in the manufacturing sector alone.  

Due to the nature of the job, manufacturing employees face an increased risk of COVID-19 transmission. Unlike other industries where businesses could temporarily shut down or allow employees to work-from-home, manufacturers needed to remain open and employees on-site to produce essential products despite local infection rates.

Manufacturing employees frequently work in close quarters and, potentially in warmer environmental conditions that create varying capabilities for wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. There may also be a variety of socioeconomic factors that increase COVID-19 risk. For example, may have a high proportion of workers with language barriers that can interfere with or make it more difficult to access information or resources. Workers may also feel the need to underreport symptoms in order to continue working because they may not be able to afford taking time off if they don’t receive paid sick leave.  

Recognizing the urgency of creating optimal safety measures in manufacturing, federal and state officials in states such as California have given new power to regulatory bodies for COVID-19-related issues. The following is a checklist for manufacturers to help them maintain both a healthy workforce and compliance with regulatory standards.

How to Prevent COVID-19 in The Workplace

There are several ways companies can be proactive in reducing their COVID-19 related risks: 

Educate

Companies need all employees to understand the importance of COVID-19 prevention and acknowledge the potential consequences of their actions to co-workers and family and themselves.  Employees need to know how the virus spreads and how their family members or co-workers may become severely ill—or worse—if a workplace-related COVID-19 outbreak occurs. Employees who understand the extent of the situation are more likely to help their companies prevent outbreaks. 

A major component of that education should address off-site concerns such as socialization with friends and using public transportation. Because many individuals contract COVID-19 in the community and then bring it into the work environment, COVID-19 prevention needs to be stressed as an ongoing issue.

Now that vaccines are widely available to all adults in the United States, the value of getting vaccinated should also be included in companies’ educational efforts. 

On-Site Preparations

Companies need to make extensive workplace preparations for COVID-19 safety that require administrative, engineering and compliance initiatives. From an engineering standpoint, companies need to identify, evaluate and correct COVID-19 hazards. Cleanable partitions (such as plastic or glass) should be installed where appropriate, particularly in areas where social distancing is more difficult. There should also be an emphasis on maximizing airflow and monitoring ventilation patterns. Workers should spend as much time as possible outside or near windows unless poor outside air quality is a major issue.  

Workplace cleaning protocols should be strict and fully compliant with local and federal guidelines. Companies need to identify commonly touched surfaces in their workplace, such as doorknobs and elevator buttons, and establish proper protocols. Shared utensils and equipment need to be identified, and companies need to either create cleaning protocols for these situations or modify duties accordingly. New equipment may have to be purchased in some circumstances, but it is an important investment for workforce health. 

Time for hand hygiene should be built into existing practices. Companies should consult with appropriate personnel to understand the optimal frequency of their institutional cleanings so that hygiene is maintained without disrupting workflow.

Companies need to post clear and concise safety rules in the workplace that all employees must adhere to. All employees must follow established safety standards for the use and importance of not sharing personal protective equipment (PPE), including gloves, face shields and eyewear. Companies should also create rules around gathering, socialization and taking breaks. 

How to Identify COVID-19 Before It Can Spread

Monitor Symptoms

COVID-19 needs to be identified early, before it can spread among your workforce. The best survey questionnaires capture all information surrounding COVID-19 risk, including travel and exposure risk, and are compliant with local and federal guidelines. Questionnaires should be accessible on multiple devices and available in multiple languages for maximum access and accuracy of potential COVID-19 cases. Don’t forget about site guests; COVID-19 risk needs to be assessed before visitors can enter the workplace as well. To achieve 100% adoption rate, it is critical that employers never punish employees for answering these surveys honestly.   

A word of advice: It may be tempting to minimize the number of survey questions by batching symptoms together to decrease completion time, but this strategy will inevitably decrease survey accuracy and put companies at heightened risk for outbreaks. 

Surveillance Testing

In areas with substantial risk of COVID-19, asymptomatic cases must be detected. The only way to identify these cases is to test employees through a process called surveillance testing. While this practice requires upfront costs for testing supplies, detecting asymptomatic cases will result in enormous savings in terms of human lives as well as preventing revenue loss from plant closures and OSHA fines.

Determining which individuals to test with the right frequency needs to be strategized. Companies need to understand which employees, if infected with COVID-19, create the highest organizational risk. Consider those who have positions requiring special skills or talent or those who interact with the most people. Individuals who pose a higher risk may include a foreman who interacts with every worker on a site or a highly specialized IT manager whose work can’t be duplicated by anyone else in the company. This may not necessarily include the CEO, who might be able to work from home safely, and who might have others who could temporarily assume some overlapping responsibilities if needed.

Contain and Contact Trace

After a case of COVID-19 is identified, OSHA requires companies to identify others who were in close contact and are now at risk for catching COVID-19. Employers should be proactive in understanding their company workflow and identifying individuals who are likely to interact with one another, so in the event that there is a case, they are prepared to act quickly to contain the spread.  For example, employers can conduct an environmental evaluation to see where ventilation is inferior and refer back to security camera footage to study mask compliance or areas where people are tending to gather in groups (e.g., the kitchen, smaller conference rooms or office supply room). Once a case of COVID-19 has been confirmed, it’s also important to stagger re-entry into the office and to be flexible about the start and end time of shifts. 

For More Information: https://www.ehstoday.com/covid19/article/21162201/how-manufacturers-can-keep-employees-safe-from-covid19