masking and economics

How much economic harm is the school committee in Lewiston, Maine willing to accept on behalf of the people they represent?

From recent census data, our town has a median age of 40, and a median household income of $44K. Put another way, more than half of the households in Lewiston have an annual income of less than $50K. Further, our poverty rate is around 18%, and the per capita income in Lewiston is close to $25K; this means that the distribution of income in Lewiston skews low. We’re not a rich town.

There is substantial economic, public policy, and mental health research that explores Covid-19’s impact on families; it is non-trivial and substantial 1,2. Our community has, and will continue to experience, many of these impacts as the pandemic continues.

In simple terms, though, what does Covid-19 cost? The average uninsured (or out-of-network) bill for a hospital stay related to Covid can easily run between $50,000 and $70,000; insured and in network, it is a much more “reasonable” $38K 3,4. Medicare fee-for-service costs may be as low as $24K in some cases5, but this is dependent on the level of care required; ventilation and ICU stays cost much, much more. While it is true that waiver programs and private insurance can bring the cost of treatment down to as little as $13006, that assumes limited, out-patient treatment, not a hospital stay.

A household income of $25K suggests one parent/guardian working 40 hours/week, 52 weeks per year, for $12/hour. A household income of $40K suggests one parent/guardian working 40 hours/week for 52 weeks/year for $20/hour. We can also get to $40K with two adults working for $12-15 hour for less than 52 weeks/year. That is, there may be illness or holiday time that drops the number of weeks worked.

If we quarantine a class of 25 students, that is 25 families that must deal with a child at home for two weeks. This will cost Lewiston $25K - $40K in lost wages, assuming someone must miss work to take care of a child, or pay someone to watch their children. Some families may have friends or a family member who can help (a grandparent or similar). Unfortunately, desperation may lead some families to leave young children at home alone, hoping for the best.

Quarantining has compound effects. If a child is quarantined, and (it turns out), Covid-positive, they may then infect a parent or guardian. In both the case of the child and the parent, there are potential health care costs. If they are lucky, this may be no more than $1,000 to $2,000. At $12/hour, a $1000 health bill is two full weeks of pay. If the case is more serious, a hospital stay can rapidly end up costing many tens of thousands of dollars. It is possible that people may have to chose between employment and caring for their family; lost jobs are difficult to recover from, and leave a family in a place where a child’s education is interrupted as well as new stressors around income and food security. (Or, if you prefer, income insecurity is food insecurity.)

In short, the school committee is not just making a decision about whether or not children in Lewiston Public Schools should or should not wear masks. They are making an economic decision for families and for our community. If everyone is healthy, there is no impact. Every classroom quarantined costs our community, in the first instance, thirty thousand dollars. However, many of those families may end up needing medical care, meaning that “economic impact number” could rapidly double (if minimal medical intervention is needed); a single hospitalization in a single quarantined classroom lifts the total economic impact of just one classroom quarantining to $120K or more.

None of this estimation considers the long-term health impacts (what is known as “long Covid”) or the possibility of job loss as a result of illness (if you are employed at will, you can be fired at any time, without reason). Nor does it consider the possibility that a severe outbreak might lead us to a place where we are doing hybrid learning; the social and economic impacts of that outcome are massive.

There is substantial, peer-reviewed research that illustrates the power of masks to limit the spread of Covid-19 7,8,9,10,11. Outbreaks in LPS endanger the health and lives of our children, stand in the way of a safe year in the classroom, and can cause substantial economic harm to our community. The Superintendent has recommended we use every tool we have to start, and if we do well, reconsider. I encourage the committee to support him in this decision, and think seriously about the impact your decisions can have on the city of Lewiston.