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Oct. 26, 2022, 4:15 p.m. EDT

Long COVID is not just a health issue — it’s now becoming a workforce issue as employers and workers struggle with long-term effects

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By Liz Seegert

This article is reprinted by permission from  .

When Patricia Anderson got COVID-19 at the very start of the pandemic, she was lucky in a sense. She never went to the hospital, despite her body temperature dropping to 93 degrees. In March 2020, many patients were told not to seek emergency care unless they had a fever of 104 degrees or higher. COVID-19 was a newly emerging threat and at the time, there were few avenues of treatment.

While the worst of the symptoms eventually faded, Anderson never really got better. She is one of the  estimated 7 to 23 million Americans  with long COVID — a condition which can encompass symptoms such as respiratory distress, cough, “brain fog,” fatigue, and malaise, that last 12 weeks or longer after initial infection. 

These ongoing symptoms, and resulting impairments, are a long term challenge as both employers and workers navigate an ever-mutating virus.

Coronavirus Update: A strong fall COVID booster campaign could save 90,000 U.S. lives and avoid more than 936,000 hospitalizations, study finds

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in five COVID survivors younger than 65 experienced at least one incident that might be related to previous COVID-19 infection. Among those 65 and older, the rate was one in four. Their data also show that nearly three times as many people age 50 to 59 currently have long COVID than those 80 or older.

Experts believe that older cohorts may have more resistance thanks to a higher proportion being fully vaccinated and boosted; younger cohorts may not be as protected. Post-COVID conditions are found more often in people who had severe illness, but anyone who has been infected can experience these conditions, even those with mild or asymptomatic COVID-19.

One of the challenges in diagnosing long COVID is that there is no diagnostic test and symptoms may also be due to other underlying health problems.

However, an analysis from the nonprofit  Solve ME/CFS Initiative,  which supports research into diagnostics, treatments, and cures for myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), long COVID and other post-infection diseases, estimates that long COVID affects 10% to 30% of those who were infected; and over half of patients experience lingering symptoms six months after initial infection.

Millions could have this disease for their lifetime.

Fatigue is the most common symptom reported (80%), followed by post-exertion malaise (72%) and brain fog (58%), according to the organization.

Related: ‘This isn’t just gonna go away’: Long COVID is crashing the retirement hopes of many Americans

Working through virus symptoms

Despite her battle with the ongoing effects of the virus, Anderson, an emerging technologies specialist at the University of Michigan, never really stopped working. “I was worried about not having enough sick leave,” she said.

Her son has autism and she needed to be there as his caregiver. But, constant fatigue and an inability to walk more than a handful of steps before needing to rest took a toll on her mental health as well. “I was a very physically active person, I was a high achiever, I walked everywhere.”

Another major challenge was the ongoing brain fog, which Anderson said she finally started coming out of in December 2021, after about 20 months of struggling with seemingly simple tasks like completing full sentences.

“When it was the worst, I did not realize how bad it was. I wasn’t capable of understanding so much,” she said. “One of the scarier times was when I wasn’t able to remember my son’s name.”

Anderson has been fortunate enough to be able to work full time from home during the pandemic; she’s able to take breaks and rest when the extreme tiredness or cognitive issues interfere with her work. But the University of Michigan now wants employees back in their offices.

And that’s tough for the 65-year-old, who  has blogged  about her two-plus year ordeal.

Anderson has recovered enough to take the bus to work one day a week. Her immediate supervisors have been very understanding, and have made accommodations, like allowing her to take breaks or lay down.

“It’s not that brain fog doesn’t happen anymore. But I’ve learned the things that I need to do, like take short breaks whether or not I feel tired, and I have learned the warning signs,” she explained. But she’s not yet ready to return in-person full time.

More: Study finds long COVID is costing Americans about $170 billion a year in lost wages

Employers are flying blind

Anderson knows she’s more fortunate than many other employees. The nature of her job allows her to still work from home and management is willing to work with her. Many people don’t have those options.

At the same time, employers are trying to understand what they need to do to care for individuals with long COVID, whether it’s benefit programs, disability management, paid leave, or short term disability, according to Bryon Bass, a senior vice president of disability and absence management at Sedgewick Corporation, one of the largest third-party administrators of employee benefits.

“There are no standards, there are no protocols and people are just really struggling to understand what they can do and what they should be doing,” he said.

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