SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — As COVID-19 continues to spread in South Dakota, we are seeing the effects most prominently among those who have not been vaccinated. Sanford Health officials last week said that unvaccinated patients make up 87% of their hospitalizations.

While outcomes of COVID-19 range from asymptomatic infection all the way up to severe illness and death, the state Department of Health reports that over a quarter (26.1%) of ICU beds in the state of South Dakota are occupied by COVID-19 patients.

According to an article published by the medical journal PLOS ONE, studies comprising a total of 24,983 participants found that the rate of ICU admission was 32%, slightly higher than the average found by the S.D. DOH.

Hospital stays requiring ICU care cost more than those which do not. A study in the Journal of American Medicine Association found that in a group of 192,550 patients, the median hospital length of stay among patients who were not admitted to the ICU was 6 days, totaling a median cost per admission of $10,520. Meanwhile, the median length of stay among those admitted into the ICU was found to be 15 days, coming to a median cost per admission of $39,825.

This stat is backed up by data from the National Institute of Health, which shows that the mean ICU cost and length of stay were between $31,574 – $42,570 and 14.4 – 15.8 days for patients requiring mechanical ventilation, and between $12,931 – $20,569 and 8.5 – 10.5 days for those not requiring mechanical ventilation.

The increase in preventable costs to the healthcare system caused by the hospitalization of unvaccinated individuals has been steep. According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a nonprofit organization focusing on national health issues, in August alone, there was an estimated $3.7 billion racked up in preventable costs from the treatment of unvaccinated patients.

KFF notes that at the beginning of the pandemic, much of these costs were fronted by insurance companies rather than the patients themselves, but with the widespread availability of free, safe and effective vaccines, this is changing.

Earlier in the pandemic, we found that the vast majority (88%) of people enrolled in fully-insured private health plans nonetheless would have had their out-of-pocket costs waived if they were hospitalized with COVID-19. At the time, health insurers were highly profitable due to lower-than-expected health care use, while hospitals and health care workers were overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. Insurers may have also wanted to be sympathetic toward COVID-19 patients, and some may have also feared the possibility of a federal mandate to provide care free-of-charge to COVID-19 patients, so they voluntarily waived these costs for at least some period of time during the pandemic.

Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker

Peterson-KFF notes that in the past few months, 72% of the two largest insurers in each state and DC (102 health plans) are no longer waiving these costs, and another 10% are phasing out waivers by the end of October, meaning that those who fall ill will now be asked to foot more of the bill, which as noted above, can easily climb to tens-of-thousands of dollars when an ICU stay is required.

Beyond the upfront and immediate costs associated with fighting COVID-19, there are also costs to consider for the treatment of long-term health problems caused by the disease. While COVID-19 is thought of first and foremost as a respiratory illness, it has the potential to cause serious damage to organs throughout the body.

According to the Mayo Clinic, organs that can be damaged by COVID-19 include:

  • Lungs: “The type of pneumonia often associated with COVID-19 can cause long-standing damage to the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. The resulting scar tissue can lead to long-term breathing problems.”
  • Heart: “Imaging tests taken months after recovery from COVID-19 have shown lasting damage to the heart muscle, even in people who experienced only mild COVID-19 symptoms. This may increase the risk of heart failure or other heart complications in the future.”
  • Brain: “Even in young people, COVID-19 can cause strokes, seizures and Guillain-Barre syndrome — a condition that causes temporary paralysis. COVID-19 may also increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Avera Health’s Dr. David Basel, discussing other long-term effects, also mentioned issues such as blood clots, and kidney damage. Kidney damage has also been reported by the National Kidney Foundation, which has recorded acute kidney damage occurring in 15% of all COVID-19 patients.

In terms of preventing the type of serious COVID-19 infection which can incur these high costs, the main course of action recommended by physicians is vaccinations.