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COVID-19: The Dangers of Underlying Health Conditions for African Americans

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As if having to monitor their blood sugar wasn’t enough of a concern, people with diabetes are more likely to develop complications from coronavirus. It is one of the underlying conditions medical experts say put people most at risk of severe COVID-19. These include diabetes, heart disease, and chronic lung disease.

“When I go out, I have to put on a mask and gloves,” said Gwendolyn Hayes, a 63-year-old grandmother from El Cajon in East San Diego County. Hayes says she’s doing her best to protect herself during this pandemic while also managing Type 2 diabetes.    

“If you were to actually see me, you wouldn’t think that I have diabetes. I’m not obese. I feel healthy,” said Hayes.   

There are 34.2 million people in the United States living with diabetes, which is more than 10% of the country’s total population, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA).  And African Americans are 60% more likely than whites to be diagnosed with diabetes, according to the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In California, the ADA estimates more than 4 million people have been diagnosed with the disease. That’s just over 10% of the adult population in the state.

“Diabetes does something quite significant to a body,” said Dr. Bill Releford who specializes in diabetes prevention and treatment at his private practice in Inglewood near Los Angeles.  “It compromises your immune system and delays the response of white blood cells to actually attack viruses and even some of the secondary bacteria,” said Releford.

Releford says the toll diabetes puts on a body makes it ideal for the communicable disease. “Your immune system is not as responsive and the high-sugar environment is perfect for the further replication and advancement of viruses and bacteria. That’s why the diabetic patient is the perfect storm for something like the COVID-19 virus to wreak havoc — particularly in underserved populations,” said Releford.

People with diabetes are also more likely to be admitted into the ICU than people with any other underlying conditions.

“When it is at the sore throat level, your immune system normally would stop it there, but because a diabetic has a compromised immune system, that throat infection is allowed to progress to respiratory infection or even pneumonia or respiratory failure and then, unfortunately, death,” said Releford.

People with heart disease are the next most likely group to land in the ICU while fighting the virus. And African Americans are diagnosed with heart disease more than any other ethnic group.   

Contrary to widespread rumors early on, African Americans are not immune to the novel coronavirus. In Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee, for example, African Americans make up the majority of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Still, “there’s less testing and there’s less treatment,” said Releford.

Releford worries prevention efforts will miss underserved communities. California’s largest cities have not released demographic information about the race of people testing positive for COVID-19. So far, Los Angeles and San Diego counties have reported nearly 6,500 confirmed cases combined.

“Studies have shown that when African Americans engage the health care delivery system with the same symptoms of fever, shortness of breath, fatigue, they are less likely to be tested and treated. So what we are seeing is the same disparities in our health care delivery system are now showing their ugly head with this pandemic,” said Releford.

The California Department of Public Health has partnered with South San Francisco-based Verily Life Sciences’ (VLS) Project Baseline. They offer free screenings in Riverside, San Jose, San Mateo and Sacramento counties with priority given to people deemed high risk primarily due to possible exposure as determined by an online questionnaire. VLS, usually referred to as just Verily, is the parent company of Google, Alphabet, Inc’s scientific research organization.

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