Anne Dixon, a lung specialist in Vermont, recalls with great clarity the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic and recalling with particular sadness one patient death due to this drug.
“We had someone very young who was overweight and ultimately died due to Covid,” noted Dixon, professor of medicine at the University of Vermont Medical Center. This event had an enormously negative impact.
As obesity became a higher-risk group for Covid infection, awareness rose quickly of its severity; studies have since confirmed obesity’s association with higher risks for severe Covid (which includes hospitalization, ICU admission and ventilator use) – not to mention increased chances of death from Covid-related causes in those living with obesity.
Even in Vermont, which is generally a less populous state than many others, Vermont researchers Jonathan Dixon and Elizabeth Lemley saw patients admitted with obesity who later passed away at their ICU. “After reviewing our data and conducting analyses, it became evident that people admitted to our ICU were significantly more likely to be obese than those admitted directly to regular medical floors,” noted Dixon who studies obesity’s effect on lung health.
Covid pandemic has killed more than one million Americans since 2020 and, although public health emergency declaration has since ended, Covid remains dangerous for many people, particularly those living with obesity.
Watch: Covid-19 and Obesity
What Is Obesity (Obesity)
Obesity is defined as having excessive amounts of body fat which result in a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above, while those within a “healthy weight range” generally fall between 18.5 to 24.9.
In 1990, approximately one in 10 U.S. adults had obesity; today four out of ten are living with it and estimates indicate that by 2030 more than half will be obese.
“Obesity affects everyone — mom, sister, brother and daughter alike. Its prevalence in our country is widespread,” according to Loretta Lee, Ph.D., R.N. co-chair of the Nurse’s Obesity Network and associate professor in family, community and health systems at University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Nursing.
Covid Obesity puts people at greater risk for serious illness from Covid Being obese has detrimental impacts on nearly every system in your body, from your cardiovascular (heart) and endocrine (hormones) systems to mental wellbeing.
“Obesity can exacerbate nearly every chronic condition a person already has because it impairs immunity,” Lee explained. As such, those diagnosed with obesity typically have lower outcomes from Covid than individuals who don’t.
People living with obesity are at increased risk for diseases like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes that put them at an increased risk for serious Covid complications. They also tend to have decreased lung capacity which places them at increased risk of respiratory illnesses; people hospitalized due to asthma-related complications at 5x the rate than people without obesity are.
“If your lungs are already compromised and then your immune system starts malfunctioning, the combined effects can be truly catastrophic,” Dixon warned.
Covid attacks the lining of the lung, with most people experiencing mild symptoms but those who are obese often experiencing more severe responses, resulting in organ damage, mental and physical impairments and long-term inflammation caused by Covid, according to Lee.
Stanford University researchers recently conducted a study that demonstrated how SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid, targeted fat tissue to spread infection. Once inside fat cells, it replicated and infected other nearby cells through macrophages which serve to defend against threats to immunity; when these immune cells became infected with SARS-CoV-2 they became inflammatory which inflamed further nearby cells as well.
Catherine Blish, M.D., Ph.D., professor of infectious diseases at Stanford University explained that macrophages produce proteins which alert other cells about any potential threats and draw in more inflammatory cells to respond accordingly.
Why does obesity make this such a threat? One theory suggests that they have more fat tissue and therefore are more vulnerable to Covid-induced inflammation — though this has yet to be proved. Blish pointed out that obesity causes additional inflammation within fat tissue itself so its response could be even more intense when exposed to viruses than with people without obesity.
“Fat tissue covers many of our vital organs, like our hearts and gut, making an inflamed situation all around your heart less than ideal,” Blish explained.
Protecting Yourself From Covid If You Live with Obesity Covid remains a serious risk for people living with obesity; wearing a mask in public may reduce your chance of infection by the virus.
But, by far, the best way to protect yourself from Covid is through vaccination. Being immunized reduces your chances of severe Covid, hospitalization or death from Covid significantly.
“We recommend all those with obesity get vaccinated against Covid as this is our best defense,” stated Dixon.
Immunocompromised people should consider additional doses of the vaccine for optimal protection. Should symptoms arise or you test positive, act swiftly and contact your healthcare provider immediately; find out whether treatment would be an option and seek their advice as soon as possible.
Be sure to stay abreast of the CDC’s Covid vaccine guidelines, and consult your healthcare provider on your own specific situation.
Lee suggested, in addition to receiving the vaccine, adopting a healthier lifestyle by including more fresh vegetables in your diet, cutting down on processed food consumption and including exercise as part of daily activities. Although lifestyle may not be solely responsible for obesity or quick fixes, healthier choices paired with vaccination could help ensure you avoid negative Covid outcomes.
Those living with obesity who suspect Covid should seek medical advice immediately.