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Research finds relationship between COVID-19 deaths, morbid obesity

An analysis released Thursday by researchers at the University of Alabama of morbid obesity data and reported COVID-19 deaths in the United States found a relationship between morbid obesity and COVID-19 deaths.

In a paper published in the journal World Medical and Health Policy, researchers found a statistically significant relationship between the prevalence of morbid obesity and cases of, and deaths from, COVID-19. The researchers suggest their findings can help identify resources needed for morbidly obese patients and inform mitigation policies.

“Health practitioners and policymakers need to understand the influence that morbid obesity has on negative COVID‐19 outcomes in order to respond to this and similar emerging infectious diseases in the future,” said Dr. Kevin Curtin, a professor of geography at the University of Alabama.

“The current global pandemic of COVID‐19, which is highly contagious with presumed high mortality rates, has dramatically increased the need to understand the association between obesity and negative health outcomes from respiratory disease, particularly death,” said Dr. Lisa Pawloski, professor of anthropology and associate dean for international programs for the University of Alabama College of Arts and Sciences.

According to the researchers, obesity is known to increase the risk from respiratory infections and hinder pulmonary function. They claim that there’s an emerging pattern in the treatment of COVID-19 patients that obesity is a pervasive problem and associated with negative health outcomes such as requiring a ventilator.

The researchers used deaths from COVID-19 compiled nationally at the county level by The New York Times and estimates of morbid obesity rates for each U.S. county derived from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The researchers looked at adults aged 18 to 64 and found that morbid obesity rates are positively correlated with COVID-19 case and death rates. According to their research, morbid obesity rates can explain 9 percent of the variation in COVID-19 death rates.

“As a matter of practical importance, with the complex interactions that are likely to produce negative COVID‐19 outcomes, any single variable that can explain more than 9 percent of the variation is worth examining further,” Curtin said.

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The researchers found that by overlaying the data geographically the researchers found that spatial clusters of high rates of morbid obesity are associated with spatial clusters of high rates of COVID-19 deaths.

According to the University of Alabama researchers, there are anecdotal reports of obesity complications in patients with COVID-19, but most formal studies so far of this relationship have been in China, which has lower obesity rates, and in hospital settings. The researchers said that this study is the first repeatable quantitative analysis that addresses this relationship.

The short term implications of the research could affect treatment and policy. Long term, the findings point to the need to strengthen public health efforts that address obesity.

“The findings suggest that areas with larger obese populations will need greater resources for effective treatment of COVID‐19, as more cases and deaths should be expected as compared with the general population,” Pawloski said. Curtin and Pawloski co-authors on the paper along with Penelope Mitchell, a doctoral student in geography, and Jillian Dunbar, who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from UA.

As of Thursday, 1,905 Alabamians have already died from COVID-19 and 107,483 Alabamians have already contracted the coronavirus and 44,684 have recovered. The United States has more deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic than any country in the world with 177,438. The U.S. also has the greatest incidence of overweight persons and obesity in the world.

Results from the 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, using measured heights and weights, indicate that an estimated 69 percent of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese. According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, Alabama has the sixth-highest adult obesity rate in the nation and the 16th highest obesity rate for youth ages 10 to 17.

Alabama’s adult obesity rate is currently 36.2 percent, up from 22.6 percent in 2000 and from 11.2 percent in 1990. Adult obesity is down slightly from our all-time high of 36.3 percent in 2017.

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Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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