COVID-19: People with obesity at higher risk, expert explains why

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In a report from the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) published Thursday, researchers conclude that Americans with diabetes, chronic lung disease and cardiovascular disease — all diseases linked to obesity — are at higher risk of experiencing a severe infection due to COVID-19.

The study analyzed more than 7,000 cases of coronavirus from February 12 to March 28. Out of the 457 individuals admitted to the ICU in that time, 358 — or 78 percent — reported having one or more underlying health conditions.

Nearly 11 percent of the ICU-admitted individuals listed diabetes, followed by 9.2 percent reporting chronic lung disease and 9 percent reporting cardiovascular disease. Less than 30 percent of COVID-19 patients who recovered without hospitalization reported having an underlying health condition.

Stacy Brethauer, MD, bariatric surgeon at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and a past-president of the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, says the research is concerning — not only for the general public but for medical professionals.

“In general, patients with severe obesity are a more challenging population to manage in the intensive care setting as well and, for a variety of reasons related to their chronic disease state, will have less physiologic reserve if they develop any severe illness, particularly a respiratory infection like COVID-19,” Brethauer tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

While it is too early in this pandemic to have any strong data to support this, it is logical to think that many patients with obesity, especially severe obesity with a body mass index (BMI) over 40 kg/m2, will have health some additional conditions that could predispose them to a more severe course of illness with COVID-19.

“The prevalence of pulmonary problems in patients with obesity is higher than for normal-weight individuals. Conditions like asthma, sleep apnea, restrictive lung disease and gastroesophageal reflux-related pulmonary issues all compromise the baseline pulmonary function of patients with obesity and will likely put them at some increased risk for serious illness with COVID-19.

“Again, there are many unanswered questions about specific risk factors that we don’t know yet, but I think it is safe to say that patients with obesity and comorbidities that compromise their heart or lung function are likely going to be at higher risk for developing severe disease with COVID-19 much like the non-obese patients with those risk factors.