When COVID-19 first began to strike around the world, there were preconceived notions about who was getting affected. The initial theory was that it only attacked the elderly and the very young and it was just like the flu.
But as more and more people have become infected with the novel virus, the medical community has learned more about it and the effects on people in certain groups.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Based on currently available information and clinical expertise, older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions might be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.”
One of those underlying conditions is diabetes.
“Diabetics are also hit hard by the flu each year. COVID-19 is more contagious than the flu,” says Steve Miller, M.D.
“What’s killing people with COVID-19 is respiratory failure. We term it ARDS for Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome.
“ARDS can occur with many conditions. It is the result of a systemic inflammatory/immune response that becomes uncontrollable and results in organ damage. The lungs are especially sensitive. I’ve seen it in post-op patients, patients with infections, pancreatitis, trauma and other pathology.
“People that are able to survive this are typically younger and healthier. It takes a lot of physiologic reserves to survive ARDS. People with chronic diseases don’t have that. Diabetics are some of the sickest people we see.”
According to diabetes. org, there are approximately 451,888 people in Oklahoma with diabetes. In addition, over a million adult residents have prediabetes.
Diabetes is caused by the body’s inability to create or effectively use its own insulin. Insulin helps regulate blood sugar levels, which diabetics have to check on a regular basis.
COVID-19 has the ability to raise the levels of sugar in an individual’s body.
Micki Nadelson is a Diabetes Care and Education Specialist and Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Pharmacy.
She says because of the effects that diabetes can have on a body, it makes fighting off a virus-like COVID-19 tougher.
“High blood sugars put added stress on the body and make it harder to fight off infections and potentially lower the person’s immune response,” Nadelson said, “making them more receptive to getting the illness as well.”
The best way for diabetics to stave off COVID-19 is to take the same precautions as the rest of the population. That includes washing hands consistently, social distancing and not touching their faces.
But diabetics also need to make sure they are watching their blood sugar levels. According to Miller, who is a native of Lawton and a cardiovascular surgeon, that is a problem those with diabetes have even during normal times.
“I operate on a lot of diabetics. A lot of them learn they are diabetic when they show up with heart problems,” Miller said. “It affects multiple organ systems silently. Many who have diabetes and take medications for it don’t take it seriously. I tell most diabetics that they need better control of their glucose. I tell them diabetes will kill you painlessly over a long period of time.”
Yet, once COVID-19 is added into the equation, the situations can get dicey.
“Diabetics are a vulnerable population. Many have some degree of vascular, cardiac, and kidney disease,” Miller said. “They are also chronically immune-suppressed as a result of their diabetes. When they become infected with the virus these things make it difficult for them to fight an infection, and usually their chronic organ dysfunction is made worse.”
However, just because a diabetic does get COVID-19, it doesn’t mean they are automatically going to endure the worst case scenarios. The chances are just slightly increased.
Because of that, Nadelson says being diligent and proactive is still the best defense.
“A healthy, well-balanced diet is important for everyone. But for the person with diabetes, a healthy way of eating has the added protection potentially of improving blood sugars which can increase the person’s ability to fight infection and illness of any kind,” Nadelson said.
“In addition to seeking treatment for the virus, work with your healthcare team to get your blood sugars as close to normal as possible which will likely improve your chances of recovery.”
Being proactive doesn’t just include the physical aspects. Because it’s a stressful time, finding ways to ease the anxiety and pressure is also important for diabetics.
“As a person with diabetes I feel more vulnerable,” Nadelson said. “Even though my blood sugars are well-controlled, I still feel an increased vulnerability to getting the illness or to get- ting over it if I do. I suggest to people to protect themselves by wearing a mask in public, practicing social distancing and washing hands often. Even if others aren’t doing it, do it anyway.”