California counties have spent more than $400,000 trying to stop measles from spreading across the state this year, according to an analysis released Friday by state officials.
So far, 43 people in the state have come down with measles, with the biggest outbreak in Northern California. The figure reported Friday represents a fraction of the true cost because it does not include all of this year’s cases or the health expenses that patients may have incurred seeking medical treatment, officials said.
But local health departments alone rack up big bills responding to someone diagnosed with measles, said Dr. Jan King of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Measles is so contagious that officials must work rapidly to stop it from spreading, experts say.
“Over time, we can quickly run up a bill that gets into several millions of dollars,” King said Friday at a news conference at UCLA. “This is very costly to taxpayers.”
L.A. County reported costs of $81,000 for three people with measles who passed through Los Angeles International Airport in March. Since, there have been at least 10 more measles cases in the county, including some that prompted quarantines of hundreds of people at UCLA and Cal State L.A. and probably led to large expenses for the health department that oversaw the orders.
“It’s hard to actually track the true cost of an outbreak to a local health department, especially since during an outbreak, the priority is stopping the disease, not bookkeeping,” said state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), whose office released the report.
When someone is diagnosed with measles, health workers try to figure out every place the patient went for four days before and after the characteristic rash appeared, when patients are thought to be the most infectious.
They make a list of the places that person visited, such as the gym or the grocery store, and then try to figure out everyone else who may have been there at the same time. That often requires requesting receipts from stores or rosters from schools and employers.
Then the investigators try to contact anyone who may have come near the patient and verify whether they are immunized by checking records or issuing blood tests.
If those people already have measles symptoms, officials will quarantine them.
L.A. County health department staffers spent 760 hours responding to those three March cases of measles, according to the report.
In just the last four weeks, the department has investigated eight cases of measles that collectively left more than 3,000 people exposed to the disease, King said. She estimated that it costs the department between $1,000 and $2,000 a case.
The cost of an outbreak includes staff salaries and overtime, tests and transportation, she said.
Additionally, patients themselves may incur costs from missing work or visiting the emergency room. The total cost of a single measles case, including the medical care typically required, is around $32,000, said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director for immunization for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Overall, California has been spared from the worst of the ongoing measles outbreak, in part because of its high vaccination rates. More than 600 people have been diagnosed with measles in New York this year amid what health officials say is the worst measles outbreak in decades in the United States.
Still, even places that have yet to see measles cases this year have incurred costs. Three California counties without any cases spent money trying to stop nearby measles outbreaks from reaching them, according to the report.
“Measles is a highly contagious disease,” King said. “One infectious case can expose hundreds, if not thousands of people to measles.”
According to the report, California counties have spent the following amounts trying to stop measles from spreading: