Addressing the long COVID as an economic drag

Review Editor’s Note: Editorials represent the views of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently of the newsroom.

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The rear-view mirror held up to the 1918 flu pandemic by a definitive historical account offers unexpected but valuable insights into a problem plaguing the modern age – an alarming labor shortage.

“Pale Rider”, a book by Laura Spinney, debuted in 2017, 99 years after the “Spanish flu” circled the globe and three years before COVID-19 brought the world to a halt in 2020. The chapters more intriguing are those who examine the short- and long-term ripple effects of the 1918 pandemic.

If the past is prologue, expect a baby boom as we retreat from the current pandemic. Fertility rates rebounded “dramatically” as the flu waned a century ago, Spinney writes. Another implication if past patterns continue: the labor pool will be shallower than it should be for some time.

The obvious reason for this in 1918 was the death toll from the pandemic. But today’s policymakers should also consider the lingering health effects of many flu survivors. At the time, we often spoke of weariness and despair. “There is good evidence…that the Spanish flu itself was a chronic disease and had a negative impact on the health of some people for months or even years after the initial flu,” Spinney said.

There seems to be a sequel to the COVID-19 pandemic. After the initial infection, an alarming number of people continue to battle the long COVID. It is the informal name given to continuous brain fog, fatigue, headache, dizziness, shortness of breath and other symptoms. “While hospitalized patients are more susceptible, even those with mild cases can experience long COVID,” according to the National Institutes of Health.

A new report from the Brookings Institution provides a valuable public service by drawing a direct line between long COVID and current labor shortages. It is a thought-provoking read. Clearly, a continued national response is needed to protect public health and the economy.

The report came out at the end of last month. One of his contributions is his triangulation of surveys and other data to get a reliable estimate of the number of Americans with long-term COVID who are no longer working.

The information gathered came from the US Census, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, the Lancet medical journal and other resources. The midpoint of the range of estimates is “3 million full-time equivalent workers,” or “1.8% of the entire U.S. civilian workforce.”

That’s a staggering number, but as the report notes, it’s consistent with findings from other countries. This also reflects the view of a Harvard economist recent estimate that “labour force participation is still about 1 percentage point lower than demographics predicted.”

The solutions outlined in the report are pragmatic and include:

  • “More speed, more money, and more trials are needed to understand the pathophysiology of long COVID (and other post-viral illnesses) and identify treatments.” Although this effort would involve considerable amounts of public funds, it should be seen as a necessary investment for a healthy workforce.
  • Measures to keep people with long-term COVID in the labor market. This could include remote work options or flexible working hours, for example, which would help employees deal with fatigue or other symptoms.
  • Ongoing monitoring of the long COVID and its impact on the workforce, as well as the ongoing evaluation of successful interventions to help those struggling with the disease continue to work.
  • Ensure that workers with long-term COVID can access medical care and, if needed, medical assistance programs so they can regain productivity. Although Minnesota is fortunate to have clinics offering this care, federal incentives may be needed to ensure there are enough medical providers with this expertise.

State legislators also have a role to play. Unfortunately, Minnesota lawmakers missed a chance in the last session to enact a lengthy COVID starter package to conduct oversight and identify ways to help struggling families. The measures passed the DFL-controlled House but fell victim to end-of-session disagreements over health and human services funding with the Republican-controlled Senate.

This error must be corrected. Lawmakers should also rely on Minnesota’s world-class medical providers and employers to improve the state’s response. Too often, this pandemic has prompted a false choice, pitting COVID countermeasures against economic growth. History and modern data suggest that they complement, not oppose.

Members of the editorial board are David Banks, Jill Burcum, Scott Gillespie, Denise Johnson, Patricia Lopez, John Rash and DJ Tice. Star Tribune Opinion staff Maggie Kelly and Elena Neuzil also contribute, and Star Tribune editor and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith serves as an advisor to the board.

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