In the first half of January, an estimated 8.8 million U.S. workers were forced to stay home because they contracted the Covid-19 virus or cared for an infected person. This is not only an increase of more than two million from last year, but also the largest labor shortage since the beginning of the pandemic, as our graph shows.
Omicron winter causes record labor shortage
While the first crowning winter hit the U.S. workforce hard, with about 6.6 million employees forced to miss work in January because of the virus, this can largely be explained by the fact that the virus had free rein: a mass vaccination campaign began Dec. 14, 2020, and only about 37 million Americans received one vaccine shot by the end of January, according to Our World in Data. The advent of the Delta variant in April 2021 was countered by a widespread vaccination campaign by then; about 180 million doses had been given as of April 1, and a total of 350 million vaccinations were given at the peak of Delta prevalence in August 2021. This is also reflected in the number of health care calls: in September, the number of calls rose to just 4.7 million, even though the more aggressive variant dominated the new infections. Now, within a month, the Omicron variant has supplanted Delta, accounting for 97 percent of all new cases as of Jan. 19.
Although Omicron is said to be less deadly, its relatively mild symptoms are still causing more and more people to stay home. If it affects important members of the workforce such as health care workers and workers in logistics, retail and manufacturing, this development could well lead to a growing number of disruptions in the economy in the near future, further exacerbating already existing supply chain disruptions, resource shortages and waves of layoffs.
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