During the 2009 H1N1 influenza epidemic, policy makers debated over whether, when, and how long to close schools. While closing schools could have reduced influenza transmission thereby preventing cases, deaths, and health care costs, it may also have incurred substantial costs from increased childcare needs and lost productivity by teachers and other school employees.
A combination of agent-based and Monte Carlo economic simulation modeling was used to determine the cost-benefit of closing schools (vs. not closing schools) for different durations (range: 1 to 8 weeks) and symptomatic case incidence triggers (range: 1 to 30) for the state of Pennsylvania during the 2009 H1N1 epidemic. Different scenarios varied the basic reproductive rate (R(0)) from 1.2, 1.6, to 2.0 and used case-hospitalization and case-fatality rates from the 2009 epidemic. Additional analyses determined the cost per influenza case averted of implementing school closure.
For all scenarios explored, closing schools resulted in substantially higher net costs than not closing schools. For R(0) = 1.2, 1.6, and 2.0 epidemics, closing schools for 8 weeks would have resulted in median net costs of $21.0 billion (95% Range: $8.0 - $45.3 billion). The median cost per influenza case averted would have been $14,185 ($5,423 - $30,565) for R(0) = 1.2, $25,253 ($9,501 - $53,461) for R(0) = 1.6, and $23,483 ($8,870 - $50,926) for R(0) = 2.0.
Our study suggests that closing schools during the 2009 H1N1 epidemic could have resulted in substantial costs to society as the potential costs of lost productivity and childcare could have far outweighed the cost savings in preventing influenza cases.