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COVID-19 reveals how obesity harms the body in real time, not just over a lifetime

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Clinician Physician, University of Virginia
Cate Varney does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the obesity epidemic once again into the spotlight, revealing that obesity is no longer a disease that harms just in the long run but one that can have acutely devastating effects. New studies and information confirm doctors’ suspicion that this virus takes advantage of a disease that our current U.S. health care system is unable to get under control.
In most recent news, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 73% of nurses who have been hospitalized from COVID-19 had obesity. In addition, a recent study found that obesity could interfere with the effectiveness of a COVID-19 vaccine.
I am an obesity specialist and clinical physician working on the front lines of obesity in primary care at the University of Virginia Health System. In the past, I often found myself warning my patients that obesity could take years off their life. Now, more than ever, this warning has become verifiable.
Initially physicians believed that having obesity increased only your risk of getting sicker from COVID-19, not your chance of being infected in the first place. Now, newer analysis shows that not only does obesity increase your risk of being sicker and dying from COVID-19; obesity increases your risk of getting infected in the first place.
In March 2020, observational studies noted hypertension, diabetes and coronary artery disease as the most common other conditions – or co-morbidities – in patients with more severe COVID-19 disease. But it was the editors of Obesity journal who first raised the alarm on April 1, 2020 that obesity would likely prove to be an independent risk factor for more severe effects of COVID-19 infection.
Additionally, two studies including nearly 10,000 patients have shown that patients who have both COVID-19 and obesity have a higher risk of death at days 21 and 45 compared to patients with a normal body mass index, or BMI.
And a study published in September, 2020 reported higher rates of obesity in COVID-19 patients who are critically ill and require intubation.
It is becoming overwhelmingly evident from these studies and others that those with obesity are facing a clear and present danger.
Obesity is an interesting disease. It is one that many physicians talk about, often in frustration that their patients cannot prevent or reverse it with the oversimplified treatment plan that we have been taught in our initial training; “Eat less and exercise more.”
It is also a disease that causes problems physically, such as sleep apnea and joint pain. It also affects one’s mind and spirit due to societal and medical professionals’ bias against those with obesity. It can even adversely affect the size of your paycheck. Can you imagine the outcry if the headline read “Patients with high blood pressure earn less”?
We doctors and researchers have understood for quite some time the long-term consequences of excess weight and obesity. We currently recognize that obesity is associated with at least 236 medical diagnoses, including 13 types of cancer. Obesity can decrease one’s lifespan by up to eight years.
Despite knowing this, U.S. physicians are not prepared to prevent and reverse obesity. In a recently published survey, only 10% of medical school deans and curriculum experts feel that their students were “very prepared” in regards to obesity management. Half of the medical schools responded that expanding obesity education was a low priority or not a priority. An average of 10 hours total was reported as dedicated to obesity education during their entire training in medical school.
And doctors sometimes don’t know how or when to prescribe medications for patients with obesity. For example, eight FDA-approved weight loss medications are on the market, but only 2% of eligible patients receive prescriptions for them from their physicians.
So, here we are, with a collision of the obesity epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic. And a question I find patients asking me more and more: How does obesity create more severe disease and complication from COVID-19 infection?
There are many answers; lets start with structure.
Excess adipose tissue, which stores fat, creates a mechanical compression in patients with obesity. This limits their ability to take in and completely release a full breath of air.
Breathing takes more work in a patient with obesity. It creates restrictive lung disease, and in the more serious cases, lead to hypoventilation syndrome, which can cause a person to have too little oxygen in their blood.
And then there is function. Obesity results in an excess of adipose tissue, or what we colloquially call “fat.” Over the years, scientists have learned that adipose tissue is harmful in and of itself. One may say that adipose tissue acts as an endocrine organ all its own. It releases multiple hormones and molecules that lead to a chronic state of inflammation in patients with obesity.
When the body is in a constant state of low-grade inflammation, it releases cytokines, proteins that fight inflammation. They keep the body on guard, simmering and ready to fight disease. That’s all well and good when they are kept in check by other systems and cells. When they are chronically released, however, an imbalance can occur that causes injury to the body. Think of it like a small but contained wildfire. It’s dangerous, but it’s not burning the entire forest.
COVID-19 causes the body to create another cytokine wildfire. When a person who is obese has COVID-19, two small cytokine wildfires come together, leading to the raging fire of inflammation that damages the lungs even more so than patients with normal BMI.
Additionally, this chronic state of inflammation can lead to something called endothelial dysfunction. In this condition, instead of opening up, blood vessels close down and constrict, further decreasing oxygen to the tissues.
In addition, increased adipose tissue may have more ACE-2, the enzyme that allows the coronavirus to invade cells and begin to damage them. A recent study has shown an association of increased ACE-2 in adipose tissue rather than lung tissue. This finding further strengthens the hypothesis that obesity plays a major role in more serious COVID-19 infections. So in theory, if you have more adipose tissue, the virus can bind to and invade more cells, causing higher viral loads that stay around longer, which can make the infection more severe and prolong recovery.
ACE-2 can be helpful in counteracting inflammation, but if it otherwise bound to COVID-19, it cannot assist with this.
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The novel SARS COVID-19 virus has forced the medical profession to face the reality that many U.S. physicians inherently know. When it comes to prevention of chronic diseases such as obesity, the U.S. health care system is not performing well. Many insurers reward physicians by meeting metrics of treating the effects of obesity rather than preventing it or treating the disease itself. Physicians are reimbursed, for example, for helping patients with Type 2 diabetes to attain a certain A1C level, or a set blood pressure goal.
I believe is time to educate physicians and provide them with resources to combat obesity. Physicians can no longer deny that obesity, one of the strongest predictors for COVID-19 and at least 236 other medical conditions, must become public enemy number one.
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We’re building a vaccine corps of medical and nursing students – they could transform how we reach underserved areas

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Chancellor and Professor of Population & Quantitative Health Sciences and Medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical School
Michael F. Collins does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The U.S. faces one of the most consequential public health campaigns in history right now: to vaccinate the population against COVID-19 and, especially, to get shots into the arms of people who cannot easily navigate getting vaccinated on their own.
Time is of the essence. As new, potentially more dangerous variants of this coronavirus spread to new regions, widespread vaccination is one of the most powerful and effective ways to slow, if not stop, the virus’s spread.
Mobilizing large “vaccine corps” could help to meet this urgent need.
We’re testing that concept right now at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where I am the chancellor. So far, 500 of our students and hundreds of community members have volunteered for vaccine corps roles. Our graduate nursing and medical students, under the direction of local public health leaders, have already been vaccinating first responders and vulnerable populations, demonstrating that a vaccine corps can be a force multiplier for resource-strained departments of public health.
On Feb. 16, we will help to launch a large-scale vaccination site in Worcester, where as many as 2,000 people could be inoculated per day.
Importantly, a large vaccination corps that includes local medical and public health students could help reach residents who might be missed by public campaigns and hospital outreach efforts. Students often represent their region’s races, ethnicities and backgrounds, which can make it easier for them to connect with communities that are hard to reach and might not trust vaccination.
The problem of getting people vaccinated quickly isn’t just about supply – it’s also about having enough people to carry out vaccinations, particularly in hard-to-reach communities.
If quickly mobilized on a large scale, a vaccine corps could directly meet three important challenges: accelerating the nationwide rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, ensuring that doses are distributed equitably to all and delivering on the promise that all Americans are able to benefit from major medical and public health advances.
Medical, nursing, pharmacy and other health students, as well as retired or unemployed clinicians, could deliver shots, monitor people who were just vaccinated or schedule the second doses that are required for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to be fully effective.
In particular, a large, well-organized vaccine corps could play a crucial role in reaching out to communities that are underserved, overlooked or hard to reach.
Corps members could staff phone banks to help people who lack internet or struggle to use online scheduling systems find vaccines in their areas and make appointments.
Our students in the vaccine corps have already helped administer vaccines in public housing complexes and homeless and domestic violence shelters. They could also provide transportation to vaccination sites or take doses directly to homebound elders who cannot safely venture out. In Alaska, for example, vaccine providers have been going out by plane and sled to remote villages to reach thousands of residents.
Members of a vaccination corps who share race or ethnicity with the community can also have an impact on overcoming people’s concerns about getting the vaccine. That’s important.
A poll released Feb. 10, conducted by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, found that only 57% of Black U.S. residents said they would definitely or probably get the COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 65% of Americans who identified as Hispanic and 68% as white. Fewer than half of Black Americans surveyed in a separate Kaiser Family Foundation poll in late January believed the needs of Black people were being taken into account.
Rural areas face similar concerns, as well as the geographical challenges of reaching people in remote areas. The Kaiser Family Foundation has found that people who live in rural areas are “among the most vaccine hesitant groups.” In mid-January, it found that 29% of rural Americans surveyed either definitely did not want to get the vaccine or said they would do so only if required.
If we extrapolate these vaccine hesitancy survey results, suggesting that as many as three or four out of every 10 Americans may avoid inoculation, public health officials’ hopes of reaching herd immunity will be in jeopardy.
The U.S. has a long history of creating health corps. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government launched the volunteer Medical Reserve Corps to mobilize current and former medical professionals and others with needed health skills during emergencies. Several Medical Reserve Corps units around the country are now assisting vaccination efforts.
This concept could be expanded, including by partnering with universities, to have wider, game-changing reach. The model of service our students are testing opens up many possibilities, limited only by a lack of will and imagination.
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The US government’s $44 million vaccine rollout website was a predictable mess – here’s how to fix the broken process behind it

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Associate Professor of Operations Management & Business Analytics, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing
Tinglong Dai does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been a nightmare for many Americans as they struggle through multi-step registration and appointment systems.
The federal government had envisioned states using one national vaccine scheduling system, and it offered a contractor US$44 million to develop it. But that system turned out to be so poorly designed that all but nine states opted out before even trying to adopt it, even though it was being offered by the government for free.
The few states that do use the Vaccine Administration Management System, or VAMS, have reported random appointment cancellations and unreliable registrations. Some vaccinators have had to resort to creating records on paper because of system glitches, slowing down the pace of getting shots into people’s arms.
As troubled as the VAMS website may be, it is also a predictable result. We’ve seen this movie before.
HealthCare.gov, the federal healthcare exchange website that was launched to implement the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion. When HealthCare.gov was launched on Oct. 1, 2013, only six people were able to sign up for health care on the first day. The Obama administration ended up having to enlist a team of engineers from Google, Amazon and Facebook to fix it.
The U.S. is among the most technologically advanced nations in the world, with some of the most powerful technology giants and the largest talent pool. So, why has the federal government repeatedly failed to deliver a functioning website essential to public health?
As an expert in health care operations management and contracting, I believe the complex federal contracting process bears much of the blame. The Biden administration has the power to fix it.
The U.S. government is the largest buyer on Earth. It spends more than half a trillion dollars a year procuring a wide range of goods and services from the private sector.
While private buyers may have their own rules governing purchasing, the U.S. government has to follow a set of procurement regulations. These regulations are known as the Federal Acquisition Regulations, or FAR, and they have been in place since 1983. The rules dictate all aspects of the federal purchasing process, including the contracting process for building websites such as HealthCare.gov and VAMS.
The Federal Acquisition Regulations were created to uphold the federal government and taxpayers’ interests through a uniform set of rules. Despite its good intention, this process has three key problems.
First, with thousands of clauses that are difficult to navigate, the Federal Acquisition Regulations have created a complicated and time-consuming contracting process, and many of those clauses are nearly impossible to implement in practice. That restricts the government to using a small group of vendors who are experienced in the game of contracting but are not necessarily the best choices for delivering products.
When the government announced the HealthCare.gov project, the tech giants that were eventually called in to fix it did not even participate in the bidding process, because the process favors past vendors such as CGI Federal, which specialized in federal contracting.
Second, in many cases, the complicated nature of the rules enables vendors to be selected without competition. In choosing a vendor for developing VAMS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that Deloitte was the only contractor that met the project requirements. The reason: The CDC believed VAMS required GovConnect, which is Deloitte’s propriety platform. The GovConnect platform was launched in June 2020 and has had some problems. It is not clear why a vaccine rollout platform had to be built on GovConnect.
Third, the contracting process discourages communications and interactions between vendors and contracting officers. For websites like HealthCare.gov and VAMS that have many stakeholders, the needs of those stakeholders typically evolve during the development process. Companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook use an “agile” method designed for changes during development. The current federal acquisition process naturally supports a traditional “waterfall” model that largely specifies all requirements at the beginning and allows little room for change.
How can the federal contracting process be fixed? Repealing the Federal Acquisition Regulations would likely cause chaos, but fixing it is doable. The executive branch of the U.S. government can modify the Federal Acquisition Regulations on its own, so it is up to the Biden administration to make changes.
Next, the federal contracting process must value results, not only the process itself or the vendors’ history of winning federal contracts. Deloitte and CGI Federal both continue to win federal contracts worth billions of dollars despite past failures.
VAMS has sparked far less public outcry than HealthCare.gov, but its failure is no less consequential, because a rapid vaccine rollout is the key to ending the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Deloitte spokesman Austin Price told Bloomberg News the company “continues to enhance the system based on feedback and priorities of VAMS users.”
The Obama administration started some reforms of the federal contracting system, particularly moving it away from the “waterfall” approach to allow more changes during development. The Biden administration could continue that work as it rethinks the tangle of federal contracting rules.
Unless it fixes the outdated federal contracting process, the U.S. will almost certainly repeat the same disaster again and again.
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How can I get the COVID-19 vaccine? Here’s what you need to know and which state strategies are working

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Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs, University of Southern California
Steven W. Chen receives funding from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1817 Wellness Grant.

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For many people, trying to get the COVID-19 vaccine has been a lesson in frustration. The vaccine supply is limited in many areas, creating confusion over who can get a first and sometimes second dose of vaccine. Even when given the green light because of their age or occupation, many Americans have no idea how to go about getting vaccinated.
Nationwide, 6 in 10 older adults reported in a recent survey that they didn’t have enough information to know when or where they could get the vaccine. Those that do locate appointment systems are often finding them hard to use, and some have faced cancellations.
The Biden administration has promised to help alleviate some of the underlying problems, particularly vaccine shortages in some areas and inconsistent deliveries that have upended appointment scheduling. But the federal government doesn’t control the vaccination process within states or communication about it, and many states have pushed those decisions to understaffed counties. Currently, fewer than two-thirds of all vaccine doses distributed to the states have been administered, suggesting the problems go beyond supply shortages.
Some states are doing better than others, and they can offer lessons for the rest. And another Biden administration proposal could also soon connect more people with the vaccine and improve communication: activating more pharmacies to help.
As a pharmacy professor, I have been following developments in the U.S. vaccination effort. Here’s what you need to know.
Unfortunately, there isn’t one satisfying answer to this question right now. The federal government recommended priorities based primarily on age, preexisting health conditions and jobs that create a greater risk of exposure, like medical personnel. But states are following through in different ways.
To find your state’s information, you can check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of state links. Or enter the name of your state and “COVID vaccine” in your favorite search engine to find out whether your state has a centralized process or whether each county or city maintains its own priority system.
States that centralize their COVID-19 vaccination procedures generally match registrants with available vaccine providers, as New Mexico and California do. If your state does not centralize vaccination procedures, you’ll need to look up the details for your county or city. Even within the same state, who is allowed to receive vaccinations and how to get one can vary widely.
A few states that have done well with vaccinations can offer lessons for the rest.
West Virginia vaccinated all of its long-term care residents and staff who wanted the vaccine within three weeks and started on second doses before other states had finished the first round. It had been the only state to opt out of the federal vaccination partnership with CVS and Walgreens for long-term care residents, instead relying primarily on a network of independent pharmacies.
The state also centralized vaccine decisions, coordination and registration at the state level rather than having West Virginia counties and localities come up with their own rules and processes. This eliminated a lot of the confusing messages and conflicting priority lists. Not everything was perfect. There were still problems with canceled appointments, particularly for groups using a troubled new appointment management system created for the CDC called the Vaccine Administration Management System.

North Dakota, which has had one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the nation, expanded its priority list early to include anyone 65 and older, as well as adults with at least two high-risk medical conditions and front-line school or child care workers. It maintained its own warehouse to store and manage vaccine supplies, which allowed it to more easily send vaccine to providers across the state instead of only hospitals and health systems, as most other states were doing. It also deployed independent pharmacies to vaccinate people in long-term care facilities.
New Mexico credits its success in large part to a website that matches registrants with providers who have available vaccine and arranges appointments accordingly.
These three states have small populations, making the logistics somewhat simpler than in more populous states, but their approaches to vaccinating residents have worked.
Looking outside the U.S., Israel leads the world by far in vaccination rates, having vaccinated over half of its 9 million citizens. A strong public health system that treated vaccination efforts as a national security issue was key. Early preparation including aggressive acquisition of vaccines and allowing anyone over 60 to be vaccinated were also important strategies.
In many states, local pharmacies remain an untapped community resource for vaccination information.
With about 67,000 sites across the U.S., community pharmacies are highly accessible and experienced at administering vaccines due to their long history of providing vaccinations for flu and other preventable illnesses.
They also have established relationships with the communities they serve, often with staff who reflect the community’s ethnicities. This is critically important for improving the low vaccination rates among minorities.
And they have had continuing contact with people during the pandemic. Many patients have been unable or unwilling to see their medical providers as often during the pandemic, but they still pick up their medications and interact with their pharmacies.
States and counties can leverage this relationship to reach patients with information about when and how they can be vaccinated. Pharmacists have access to older and underserved patients who may have difficulty accessing and navigating websites. They can also help address questions about the vaccines from people who may be concerned after hearing rumors and misinformation. If people aren’t getting vaccinated, that could put herd immunity and a return to normal in jeopardy.
Vaccination is critical to slow the spread of new and more contagious virus variants and hopefully prevent the development of vaccine-resistant mutations. The president’s plan includes securing enough Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for everyone in the U.S. to receive both doses by the end of summer, provided the doses are distributed effectively.
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