Table of Contents
- One in seven US workers may experience lingering COVID-19 symptoms like “brain fog” and fatigue.
- Long COVID could be preventing 1.6 million Americans from rejoining the the workforce amid widespread labor shortages.
- Three healthcare workers told Insider how long COVID has impacted their careers.
A year ago, Maddy was guiding hundreds of uninsured women through cancer treatment as a healthcare worker at a major Connecticut hospital.
Now, she says she relies on calendar notifications for daily tasks and forgets entire conversations hours after she’s had them. Her sister calls her each night to remind her to lock the door and set an alarm, she told Insider.
Maddy, a long-COVID patient, requested the use of a pseudonym in order to speak freely and protect her privacy, but her identity is known to Insider. The former hospital worker is one of millions of Americans who have developed long-term health issues from initial COVID-19 infections, including lingering symptoms that significantly impact their daily lives and compromise their employment.
“I don’t use the stovetop anymore,” Maddy said. “There were too many times where I forgot I was cooking something and almost set the kitchen on fire.”
According to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research group, one in seven US workers may experience lingering COVID-19 symptoms like Maddy’s. That means long COVID, formally called “post-acute sequelae of COVID-19,” could be preventing or stalling 1.6 million Americans from returning to work amid a national labor shortage.
Long COVID isn’t just a health problem — it’s an economic one, too
According to a February report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a UK-based human resources organization, one in four employers across 804 surveyed organizations listed long COVID as a top three reason contributing to long-term employee absence.
“These are not just nameless numbers,” Dr. Greg Vanichkachorn, a Mayo Clinic occupational medicine specialist, told the Minnesota House Health Finance and Policy Committee in February. “These are bus drivers, laborers, physicians, nurses.”
“The challenge ahead of us with long-haul COVID is not just a healthcare challenge, but a challenge for our society and our economy as well,” he continued.
Three workers told Insider how the long-term effects of COVID have stalled their careers in healthcare, an industry currently suffering from a shortage of workers.
There is no official, consistent diagnosis of long COVID. However, all three women interviewed by Insider provided medical records describing the “development of new or recurrent symptoms that occur after the symptoms of acute illness have resolved,” as the condition is defined by the CDC.
The ‘nightmare’ of navigating long COVID diagnoses and treatment
After initially testing positive for the virus in January 2021, Maddy told Insider she was unable to work for six weeks due to fever and still suffers to this day from severe fatigue, memory loss, and shortness of breath.
After the fever receded, Maddy said she returned to the hospital part-time, working four to six hour shifts.
“It would feel like I worked a 16-hour shift,” she said. “I was scared to drive because I was afraid of falling asleep.”
Three weeks later, she was placed on medical leave. When Maddy was unable to return to work after the 26 week disability period, she was replaced — in March 2022, the hospital officially ended her employment.
Now, left without employee benefits and healthcare, Maddy said navigating the maze of long COVID treatment has become a “nightmare.”
53-year-old Sherikay Griffith recalled a similar experience. As a registered nurse of 25 years, Griffith was in charge of testing the 4,000 residents of Valdez, Alaska for the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic.
In December 2020, she tested positive herself. Within a week she said she was hospitalized for a heart attack and later, a stroke.
Griffith said her severe reaction to the virus was due to a rare, underlying condition known as “Factor V Leiden,” which leads to an elevated risk of blood clots. Before her COVID-19 diagnosis, she said it did not affect her daily life.
Now, just over one year later, Griffith said she can only leave bed for 15 minutes at a time and struggles with memory loss and extreme vertigo.
One of the hardest parts, she said, is knowing that her decades-long career as a nurse has come to an abrupt end.
“I thought I had another 20 years left,” she told Insider. “It was my identity.”
Dr. David Putrino, a neurologist at Mount Sinai’s Center for Post-COVID Care and leading long-COVID researcher, said comorbidities like Griffith’s complicate what is an already difficult diagnosis process.
The condition’s umbrella definition requires clinicians “to see the whole person … and stop trying to treat people like individual organ systems,” Dr. Putrino told Insider.
There is currently no proven relationship between preexisting health status — nor the severity of the original COVID infection — and the likelihood of developing long COVID symptoms. At this point, research shows “anyone” is susceptible to the condition, Dr. Vanichkachorn said.
“We’re not offering any rapid cures,” Dr. Putrino added. “Unfortunately, we don’t have that level of knowledge. It’s a brand new condition that we’re treating in real time.”
The inability to return to work creates financial strain and piles of paperwork
An estimated 46% of long COVID patients have reduced their work hours as opposed to taking time off, according to The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal. This is the case for Gail Ukockis, a mental health professional who worked in a Suboxone clinic for patients with opioid use disorders when she tested positive for COVID-19 in December 2020.
She told Insider she can now only endure 30-hour work weeks at her new job as a counselor.
“Some mornings I wake up and think I should apply for disability,” she said. “But I just want to keep on working. There are so many more things in my life I want to do career wise.”
All three women said their career disruptions have led to financial strain, forcing them to dive into retirement savings.
Long COVID patients are eligible for disability benefits through the Americans with Disabilities Act if the condition substantially limits one or more major life activities. However, the application process requires lengthy documentation, which many long COVID patients lack, The New York Times reported.
From constantly calling doctors without answers to requesting dozens of medical records, Maddy told Insider the disability benefits application was nearly impossible for someone with her symptoms to complete.
“We are expected to do all the legwork,” she said. “I have memory issues — not saying that that’s an excuse — but I literally begged people for help.”
“Now I don’t have a lot of money in my bank account. I have to think about planning for food stamps,” she added.