By Brendan M. Price ~ Originally posted to FederalReserve.gov on August 5, 2022 in FEDS Notes
Long COVID encompasses a suite of long-term symptoms that commonly include fatigue, shortness of breath, and so-called brain fog, along with many others. Individuals with long-term symptoms may be unable to work (or work full-time) as a result of their condition, and there is growing evidence that long COVID may be restraining labor supply.1
In this note, I use two survey datasets to document four facts about long COVID in the United States. First, long-term COVID symptoms are much more prevalent among women, adults under 65, Hispanics and Latinos, and non–college graduates than among other demographic groups. Second, COVID “long haulers” cite specific physical and cognitive impairments commonly associated with the condition in media and medical reporting. Third, the share of working-age adults reporting serious difficulty remembering, concentrating, or making decisions has risen steadily since the start of the pandemic. Fourth, growing shares of women and of non–college graduates report simultaneously (i) being out of the labor force due to disability and (ii) experiencing these cognitive difficulties. Non-participation attributed to disability was declining steadily in the years leading up to the pandemic, but that downward trend has stalled. Long COVID is likely one reason why.
I. Evidence from the Household Pulse Survey
Newly available data from the Household Pulse Survey—an experimental Census Bureau product launched at the start of the pandemic—provide the first large-scale, population-level detail on the prevalence of long COVID.2 Starting with the survey’s June 2022 wave, respondents who report having had a diagnosed case of COVID are asked,
“Did you have any symptoms lasting 3 months or longer that you did not have prior to having coronavirus or COVID-19?”
Though there is no universally agreed-upon definition of long COVID, the three-month threshold is a common criterion. To aid responses to this question, the survey questionnaire provides a list of symptoms frequently associated with long COVID.3
The Pulse Survey suffers from an extremely low response rate, around 6 percent in recent survey waves. In addition, respondents cannot be linked over time, precluding longitudinal analyses that would facilitate causal inference about the effects of long COVID. For these reasons, the Pulse data may be more useful as a barometer of qualitative patterns than as a reliable gauge of magnitudes. With these caveats noted, I use the June and July 2022 survey waves to estimate the prevalence of long COVID and its associated impairments.4
The prevalence of long COVID
Among adults aged 18 or older, 41 percent of Pulse respondents report having been diagnosed with COVID at some point in the past; 14 percent of all respondents, and 35 percent of those with diagnosed COVID, report having experienced symptoms lasting three or more months. The prevalence of long COVID in the Pulse data is roughly in line with some external estimates that about 30 percent of COVID patients go on to develop long COVID.5 Just over half of long haulers report that they are currently experiencing symptoms.
The incidence of long COVID varies greatly across demographic groups. As shown in Figure 1, long COVID is significantly more common among women, among individuals under 65, among Hispanics and Latinos, and among those without a college education.6 I return to disparities by gender and educational attainment later in my analysis.