If most Americans get Covid-19, the cost of their care could top $650 billion (R12 125 billion), a new study finds.
To reach that estimate, researchers created computer models that simulated various scenarios.
Each model dealt with patients who developed different symptoms over time and were seen at clinics or in an emergency room. The simulations considered the treatment they would need and their outcome.
If 20% in the United States were infected, an average of 11 million would be hospitalised and two million ventilators would be used, costing more than $163 billion (R3 40 billion), the models showed.
Herd immunity strategies
If half of the population got sick, average costs would soar to $409 billion. And if 80% were infected, 44.6 million would be hospitalised, 6.5 million ventilators would be used and average cost would hit $654 billion during the outbreak.
"Some have suggested herd immunity strategies for this pandemic. These strategies consist of allowing people to get infected until herd immunity thresholds are reached and the virus can no longer spread," said study lead author Sarah Bartsch, project director of the Public Health Informatics, Computational and Operations Research (PHICOR) team at the City University of New York.
"However, our study shows that such strategies could come at a tremendous cost," she said in a university news release.
Senior author Bruce Lee, PHICOR's executive director, said the study also shows what could happen if social distancing measures were relaxed and the country were "reopened" too soon.
"If the virus is still circulating and the infection rates surge as a result, we have to consider the resulting health care costs," Lee said. "Such costs will affect the economy as well because someone will have to pay for them. Any economic argument for reopening the country needs to factor in health care costs."
Very different from the flu
Costs for Covid-19 are much higher than for other conditions, the researchers said. Treating a single infection costs an average of more than $3 000 (R55 960) – four times higher than flu and nearly six times higher than whooping cough (pertussis). Treating long-term effects of Covid-19 pushes the cost to nearly $4 000 (R76 613).
"This is more evidence that the Covid-19 coronavirus is very different from the flu," Bartsch said. "The burden on the health care system and the resources needed are very different."
Coronavirus can also quickly overwhelm the health care system, the researchers pointed out. If just 20% of the population is infected, there would not be enough ventilators and ICU beds.
"Of course, the actual capacity used will depend on the timing of when patients need them," Bartsch said. "But showing that there are orders of magnitude differences between what is currently available and what may be needed is concerning."
The report was published in the journal Health Affairs.