Long COVID Study Released by WCRI
“Long COVID” is a dreaded term used to describe a COVID condition lasting longer than the expected recovery time. To date, efforts to analyze data related to Long COVID have been hampered by a number of confounding factors: different definitions from the CDC and WHO, variants with vastly different outcomes, improvements in treatment over the course of time, and data drawn from different populations. “Long COVID” generally has no accepted definition.
The Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) is an independent, not-for-profit research organization dedicated to providing high-quality workers’ compensation analysis. In a January 2023 study report, the WCRI sought to minimize these confounding factors and limited their analysis to Long COVID cases in the workers’ compensation system early in the pandemic. The WCRI defined Long COVID as a COVID condition with symptoms lingering 30 days after the start of the infection. The WCRI sought to answer questions such as how often workers received medical care beyond a short quarantine, the prevalence of Long COVID symptoms among workers, which body systems were primarily affected, and the effect of Long COVID on workers’ compensation payments.
The 49-page report was chock-full of analysis, tables, and an appendix containing more statistics than a shoebox full of old baseball cards. This article will attempt to summarize the most important findings.
The prevalence of Long COVID varied greatly depending upon the type and extent of treatment workers had received. For instance:
- 74% of workers requiring ICU care received treatment for Long COVID;
- 44% of workers who were hospitalized but with no ICU care received Long COVID treatment;
- 19% of workers with two or more days of medical care, but no hospitalization, treated for Long COVID; and
- 5% of workers with only one day of medical care treated for Long COVID.
Overall, 7% of all workers with COVID-19 claims received treatment for Long COVID beyond the post-acute period. The persistent symptoms associated with Long COVID included:
- chronic cough
- shortness of breath
- extreme fatigue
- chest tightness and pain
- muscle pain
- headache and brain fog
- palpations, tachycardia, and myalgia
- abdominal pain and diarrhea
- problems with memory, concentration and anxiety.
The study also discussed the relationship between Long COVID conditions and other medical conditions:
- Lung-related Long COVID conditions were most frequent at 63%
- Heart-related conditions represented approximately 33% of Long COVID cases
- Mental health conditions represented approximately 10% of Long COVID cases
- Roughly half of Long COVID sufferers reported conditions affecting multiple body systems
The study only found minor differences in the percentage of men (7%) and women (6%) who developed Long COVID.
Consistent with other studies, WCRI found that the likelihood of Long COVID increased with age. They found:
- 2 to 4% of workers younger than 35 years old developed Long COVID.
- 10 to 12% of individuals older than 55 years old developed Long COVID.
WCRI looked at the incidence of Long COVID across states. In most states, WCRI concluded, individuals receiving care for Long COVID varied between 3 to 8%. Variations were possibly due to factors such as differing workers’ compensation systems across states including (1) rules regarding presumption laws (2) rules regarding compensability and (3) use of sick leave while workers were recovering.
We likely should not be surprised that Long COVID cases resulted in:
- an 800% increase in medical payments
- a 300% increase in duration of temporary total disability
- a 500% increase in permanent partial disability benefits
The WCRI findings comport with much of what employers in workers’ compensation practitioners have experienced. That is, most claims are either relatively minor or extremely serious.
To date, finding reliable data on the prevalence of Long COVID cases and their effect on workers’ compensation costs has been difficult due to several confounding variables. By using a single definition and limiting its analysis to a specific timeframe and representative pool of people, the WCRI study brings welcome clarity to these issues.