Some 1.5 million people missed work because of an illness last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The month before that, it was 1.6 million. In October, 1.3 million and in September 1.2 million. In fact, the last time there were fewer than a million Americans missing work because of an illness was November 2019.
That year, in fact, there were nine months with fewer than a million people missing work because of an illness. In 2018, there were another nine such months. In 2017, there were seven months under a million, but every single month that year saw fewer people missing work because of an illness than the month with the lowest level of missed work in 2022.
The difference? The coronavirus.
This pattern was revealed in a chart from the Daily Shot, a newsletter of graphics about financial news. I’ve re-created it below.
From 2017 through 2019, the country averaged about 964,000 illnesses a month, with numbers rising in the midwinter flu season. From 2020 through last year, though, the monthly average was 55 percent higher — nearly 1.5 million people missing work each month.
You can see how the increase hits right at the start of the pandemic in January 2020. Below, you can also see that the pattern of missed work (using a three-month average in the chart at left) tracks much more closely to positive coronavirus cases than positive flu tests. (The flu data are surveillance data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
When there are more recorded coronavirus cases, there are more people missing work. That’s shown below. The diagonal purple line heads up as it heads right — as positive tests increase, so does the number of people missing work. But there’s no correlation between increases in positive flu tests and the rate at which people miss work.
In part, that’s because the coronavirus broke the link. The 2020-2021 flu season saw almost no flu cases, thanks to the widespread use of masks and social distancing. In the years before the pandemic (2017 to 2019 are shown below), there was a much closer relationship between flu cases and missed work.
In fact, the month in the 2017 to 2019 period with the most people missing work was January 2018, also the year in which positive flu tests were at their peak. In the past three years, there have been 26 months in which the number of people missing work exceeded that January 2018 peak.
The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, in a sense, meant a constant flu season — and a bad one. Fewer people are dying of covid-19, happily, but that doesn’t mean it’s not having a significant ongoing effect.