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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

It may soon be time for the U.S. to take an unprecedented step and waive the costs of treatment for the new coronavirus, for everyone.

Where it stands: Insurers have already waived the cost of testing for many patients. But if hospitals are deluged with coronavirus cases, as expected, it may also be time to look at the substantially higher cost of treatment.

By the numbers: The average hospitalization for COVID-19 will likely cost more than $20,000, and patients will be on the hook for an average of about $1,300 of that total.

  • Those estimates are conservative. They’re based on an analysis of the cost to treat pneumonia, among people with employer-based insurance.

Not everyone who contracts the coronavirus will require hospitalization; many will be able to recover at home. But those who do require more intensive treatment will be at risk for big hospital bills — which could also scare people away from getting treated or even tested.

  • Almost 6 million uninsured people are at high risk for a serious illness related to COVID-19; they would likely experience the greatest economic hardship.
  • Many people will be shouldering these costs at the same time they’ve been laid off, had their hours cut or are experiencing other economic shocks from the epidemic.

Between the lines: Insurers could face significant challenges if they had to absorb these costs, so some federal help might be warranted. And any waiver on patients’ cost-sharing could be temporary — perhaps expiring once the national emergency declaration is lifted.

Where it stands: This is another part of the coronavirus response in which states are leading the way.

  • Massachusetts and New Mexico have waived treatment cost-sharing for privately insured patients who are not employed by self-insured companies. (Those plans are regulated differently.)

The bottom line: This virus won’t be here forever, but while it’s here, it will be saddling people with big hospital bills exactly the time when they are the most medically and economically fragile. The government could ease that burden by waiving patients’ share of the cost for coronavirus treatment.

Editor's note: This column has been corrected to reflect that one of the two states that waived treatment costs is Massachusetts (not Florida).

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Health

FDA advisory panel recommends Pfizer boosters for those 65 and older

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Key Biscayne Community Center on Aug. 24, 2021. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Friday overwhelmingly voted against recommending Pfizer vaccine booster shots for younger Americans, but unanimously recommended approving the third shots for individuals 65 and older, as well as those at high-risk of severe COVID-19.

Why it matters: While the votes are non-binding, and the FDA must still make a final decision, Friday's move pours cold water on the Biden administration's plan to begin administering boosters to most individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine later this month.

2 hours ago - World

France recalls ambassadors from U.S. and Australia over submarine deal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L), French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C), and French ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

France has taken the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia after both countries blindsided their French allies with a new military pact and submarine contract, the French Foreign Ministry announced on Friday.

The backstory: While sealing an agreement with the U.S. and U.K. to acquire nuclear submarines, Australia ripped up an existing $90 billion submarine deal with France. That led senior French officials to accuse the U.S. of a "stab in the back."

Updated 2 hours ago - World

In reversal, Pentagon now says drone strike killed 10 Afghan civilians

Caskets for the dead are carried towards the gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral for members of a family that is said to have been killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul on Aug. 30. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A U.S. drone strike launched on Aug. 29 killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan, including seven children, rather than the Islamic State extremists the Biden administration claimed it targeted, the Pentagon said Friday.

Why it matters: U.S. Central Command said at the time that officials "know" the drone strike "disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat" to Kabul's airport, and that they were "confident we successfully hit the target."