The virus can cause mild to severe respiratory illness, and those with underlying health conditions and compromised immune systems are at the greatest risk for a severe case.
One of those conditions is obesity, a condition that affects 42.4 percent of U.S. adults in 2020. Obesity has serious health consequences in and of itself, including increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and many types of cancers. Even before COVID-19 hit, healthcare spending was estimated to increase by $149 billion due to obesity. But concerns about the impact of obesity rates as an underlying health condition have greatly increased, as this means 42 percent of Americans could suffer the most serious consequences of the COVID-19 infection due to their weight.
The Connection Between Weight and Severe Cases of COVID-19
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), being obese may triple the risk of hospitalization due to a COVID-19 infection. Some of the most severe complications of the coronavirus — such as acute respiratory failure or acute respiratory distress syndrome — can be exacerbated by conditions already present in a person with obesity, such as chronic, low-grade inflammation and hypoventilation, which is “breathing that is too shallow or too slow to meet the needs of the body.”
Dr. Kyle Stephens, the weight loss surgeon at Houston Methodist, adds that “Obesity is the number one risk factor for developing a severe case of COVID-19 in people under the age of 55. People don’t always see obesity as abnormal, since it’s quite prevalent, but it’s important to know if your weight is putting you at risk for COVID-19, as well as other health conditions.”
“Having a BMI of 30 or higher increases a person’s risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19 by 27 percent,” Dr. Stephens adds. “And a BMI of 40 or higher doubles a person’s risk.”
Why Bariatric Surgery Is Increasing During the Pandemic
That information alone could be a trigger for the fact that there has been a sharp increase in bariatric weight loss surgery, presumably for patients to not only reduce their weight but also reduce their chances of suffering severe consequences from COVID-19.
In fact, according to a clinical study from the Cleveland Clinic, that’s currently under peer review, obese patients who have undergone bariatric surgery were 25 percent less likely to require hospitalization after contracting COVID-19. Not only that but of those who were hospitalized, none who had bariatric surgery were admitted to the ICU or died from the virus — compared with 13% of hospitalized obese patients who didn’t have the surgery.
The good news is that the American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) recently issued a statement declaring that “obesity surgery is not ‘elective’ and should be resumed as soon as it’s safe to do so during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Metabolic and bariatric surgery is NOT elective. Metabolic and bariatric surgery is medically necessary and the best treatment for those with the life-threatening and life-limiting disease of severe obesity,” the statement says.
While most scheduled procedures were put on hold amid the epidemic, they’re now starting to see a sharp rebound. According to Cigna, while prior authorizations for bariatric surgeries declined 38.8 percent annually between March and May of 2020, they increased 9.3 percent annually in June, July, and August. And Dr. John Morton, head of the bariatric practice at Yale Medical Center, said that once Yale’s five hospitals reopened to elective surgeries in June, bariatric surgery volume rose about 20 percent, compared with a year earlier.
“We’ve had patients who wanted to come and take care of their obesity, to be healthier, and when we ask them, why did you come now? It’s because they’ve heard this message that it’s a risk factor for COVID infection,” said Dr. Ali Aminian of the Cleveland Clinic.