Coronavirus poses special risk to millions of Americans with diabetes

As the worsening coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the country, millions of Americans living with diabetes face heightened risks from COVID-19.

Around 30 million Americans have diabetes, mostly of the type II (previously called “adult-onset”) variety. A quarter of U.S. adults with diabetes are over 65, an age that has been shown to delineate increased COVID-19 mortality rates.

“One issue is you have the confounding factor of age. As people age, type II diabetes becomes more and more prevalent,” Dr. Mark Snyder, an endocrinologist in San Francisco, told Yahoo News. “It’s hard to tease out all of these issues. Aging is also a risk factor for complications with COVID-19.”

Diabetes is a disease of the pancreas that impairs the body’s ability to process blood glucose. When left untreated, high blood sugar levels can lead to a variety of life-threatening complications, such as heart disease, kidney failure and stroke.

COVID-19 is especially worrisome for older diabetics, who may already be suffering from heart disease, another risk factor for those who contract the virus.

“Diabetes and high glucose levels are associated with increased complications, respiratory failure and mortality in hospitalized patients with COVID-19,” the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists states on its website.

Data compiled on the 2,112 U.S. deaths from COVID-19 through March 28 showed 10.9 percent had diabetes, the most frequent underlying health condition among those who had died. Still, health experts caution that more still needs to be learned about the link between diabetes and COVID-19.

“There is not enough data to show whether people with diabetes are more likely to get COVID-19 than the general population,” the American Diabetes Association says on its website. “The problem people with diabetes face is primarily a problem with worse outcomes, not greater chance of contracting the virus.”

In China, where the virus is believed to have originated, the data does show that people with diabetes had much higher rates of serious complications and death from COVID-19 than people without it, the ADA reported.

The complications from viruses pose a heightened risk for diabetics, which is why they are encouraged by doctors to receive a flu shot every year. Roughly 30 percent of the adults hospitalized with influenza each year have diabetes, according to the CDC.

“People with high blood sugar from diabetes can be more severely affected by common infections, such as influenza and pneumonia,” the University of Michigan wrote on its website. “This is why immunizations for influenza (the flu) and pneumococcal disease are recommended for people who have diabetes.”

Given that initial data shows COVID-19 is three times more infectious than the seasonal flu, diabetics should take extra precautions, health officials warn.

“If you do get one of these common illnesses, your diabetes is going to be messed up and you’re likely going to end up in the hospital,” Snyder said.

In part that’s because viral infections in diabetic patients greatly increase the risk of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a condition that occurs when cells don’t receive sufficient glucose. It can lead to coma and death.

“DKA can make it challenging to manage your fluid intake and electrolyte levels — which is important in managing sepsis. Sepsis and septic shock are some of the more serious complications that some people with COVID-19 have experienced.”

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Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides. 

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