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Obesity, a significant factor in COVID deaths, makes some eligible for vaccines in other states

Doctors say COVID-19 creates the 'perfect storm' for complications - including death - for those who are both overweight and or obese.

ATLANTA — New details about COVID-19 and obesity are causing concern and controversy. 

The CDC released the results of a small study showing, out of the COVID patients who were hospitalized between March and December of last year who needed ventilators and ultimately died, 28% of them were overweight and about 51% were obese.

11Alive spoke to Kaiser Obesity Medicine Specialist Dr. Marcus Christopher Griffith and Dr. Sujatha Reddy for insight.

We asked both, for someone who is obese, how does their body function differently than someone of a normal weight?

"When you’re overweight, your heart and lungs are really already working harder, and then when you push them, you stress them," Dr. Reddy said. "It really makes them work all that much harder."

Dr. Griffith added that COVID-19 creates the "perfect storm" for complications - including death - for those who are both overweight and or obese.

"When you can’t move your chest wall muscles in and out, that’s what sets people up to go on ventilators," he described.

He added that the immune system, respiratory system and other organs crucial to fighting COVID are already compromised for those with obesity, making it an uphill battle at the first cough.

This kind of data is the reason people who are obese are included in the 1C phase to get the COVID vaccines in many states, in the category alongside those with liver disease, cystic fibrosis, dementia and sickle cell anemia. 

Some critics of the plan to include those with obesity in the phase said it's not fair, they say because obesity is self-inflicted. But Griffith said in some cases, people with obesity are at a greater risk for dying from the virus than those with other health diseases.

"Obesity may be a greater risk factor for death and complications compared to someone who has asthma, emphysema," Griffith said. 

Reddy also pointed out obesity has been categorized as a disease and that it can also be genetic.

"While it may be easy to say it’s something that someone has done to themselves, there are factors outside of their control," Reddy said. 

"When we look at the risk factors for coronavirus - things like smoking - people who are smokers are also getting on the vaccine priority list because of the risks associated with that," she continued. "So, perhaps this is a time for us to just be a little bit kinder. Even though these things seem to be self imposed or self inflicted, the person may need extra help."

The CDC has long considered obesity a high risk factor, but here in Georgia, that alone doesn’t make someone eligible to get a vaccine right now. However, as of March 8, parents of a child who is obese are able to get a shot, with the Georgia Department of Public Health listing it among the “serious medical conditions” for kids.

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