‘But the Economy!’ COVID-19 Could Cost U.S. Billions in Health Expenses


Protesters across the country are urging state leaders to reopen nonessential businesses amid the COVID-19 heath crisis, citing concern for the economy. But a new study suggests there’s an even bigger cost anti-lockdown advocates aren’t taking into account: the health care system.

In a new study published in the Health Affairs journal, the Public Health Informatics, Computational, and Operations Research team (of the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy) found that the pandemic could cost the country $654 billion in medical expenses if a majority of the population gets sick.

“This also shows what may occur if social distancing measures were relaxed and the country were to ‘re-open’ too early,” said PHICOR executive director and CUNY SPH Professor Bruce Y. Lee, senior author of the study.

“If the virus is still circulating and the infection rates surge as a result, we have to consider the resulting health care costs. Such costs will affect the economy as well because someone will have to pay for them. Any economic argument for re-opening the country needs to factor in health care costs.”

The team developed a computer simulation model of the U.S. to determine what would happen if different proportions of the population contracted COVID-19. They found that if just 20% of the nation’s population became sick, hospitalizations, ventilators, and other health resources would cost an average of $163.4 billion — and there wouldn’t be enough ventilators and intensive care unit beds for patients.

If 50% of the population became sick with COVID-19, it would cost the country $408.8 billion. And if 80% contracted COVID-19, medical expenses could reach $654 billion, according to the study.

“Some have suggested herd immunity strategies for this pandemic,” said Sarah Bartsch, PHICOR project director and lead author of the study. “These strategies consist of allowing people to get infected until herd immunity thresholds are reached and the virus can no longer spread. However, our study shows that such strategies could come at a tremendous cost.”

There are more than 839,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., and more than 46,000 people have died as a result of the illness, according to the Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

The new research comes as several states — including Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee — have begun to lift coronavirus restrictions and reopen nonessential businesses, according to The Washington Post. The reopenings have been met with criticism from many who say doing so could put residents at risk of sickness and even death.

The authors said in the study that COVID-19 is much more costly than other common infectious diseases. It costs about $3,045 to treat one person infected with COVID-19, which is four times higher than that of the flu.

“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.”

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Bruce Y. Lee (Professor; Executive Director, PHICOR, Health Policy and Management) | Profile 1
Sarah M. Bartsch (Project Director, PHICOR) | Profile 1