It has been six long months since cities throughout the United States began initiating massive statewide shutdowns to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. Since then, we have learned a lot about the disease and how it affects humans, but there still remains a great deal that we don’t know. Even as more pharmaceutical companies head toward Phase 3 clinical trials of a vaccine, realistically we’re looking at several months before this highly infectious disease is under control.
During this gap, it is important to remember that several medical conditions put individuals at a notably higher risk for contracting COVID-19. While heart or pulmonary diseases are commonly associated with high-risk groups, the conditions that put people at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 also include more unlikely candidates, including obesity. In fact, the World Health Organization included obesity as one of the comorbidities that would put priority patients at the top of the list once a vaccine becomes available.*
Obesity has become recognized as a greater risk factor for patients in the United States because the rate of obesity is so much higher here than in other countries that experienced significant outbreaks, such as China and Italy. Dr. David Kass, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins, noticed the link between obesity and severe cases of COVID-19 early on, which prompted him to contact other cardiologists around the country. They collected date on over 250 patients and found the same relationship. Another notable distinction is that patients with obesity are younger on average than other COVID-19 patients.**
Dr. Kass identified some specific reasons why obesity is more of an issue with COVID-19 than with other diseases. First, obesity requires that the diaphragm work harder, and COVID-19 complicates this because the lungs can fill with fluid, making breathing even more difficult. Inflammation is another issue. People with obesity are often subject to chronic low-grade inflammation and this virus exacerbates that by putting additional strain on the immune system.
Despite, or perhaps because of its prevalence, obesity often remains unaddressed as physicians focus on the comorbidities associated with it. However, this is a unique situation. While obesity puts people at risk for a number of diseases, it is not typically associated with higher risk of contracting a virus or flu. As such, patients may need to be made aware that they could be more susceptible than others for contracting COVID-19. Patients should be reminded to have at least a 30-day supply of prescription and other medications and to maintain the precautions endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control including wearing a mask, social distancing and frequent hand washing. They should also contact their physician if they question any symptoms they may be experiencing as potentially related to COVID-19.
The United States has had over five million cases of coronavirus and as we head into flu season, we all will need to take greater precautions to maintain safety. A vaccine is on the horizon, but in the meantime, being informed is the best weapon at our disposal for keeping this disease at bay.
* Cohen, J. (2020, June 29). The line is forming for a COVID-19 vaccine. Who should be at the front? Science.
** Pearce, K. (2020, June 1). Obesity a major risk factor for COVID-19 hospitalization. HUB. Johns Hopkins University.