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Wake Up Call: The Link between Chronic Conditions and COVID-19

We are in the middle of a global pandemic and I am worried.  Worried about our communities, our economy, and most acutely, about the health and wellbeing of my family.  My 81-year old mother is foremost in my mind, as her age alone places her at a higher risk of “disease severity” if she were to become infected with COVID-19. While there is nothing she can do about her age, she is taking steps recommended by the CDC to reduce her risk of infection.

As the data is coming in, one fact is clear - underlying chronic health conditions (such as hypertension, obesity, cardiovascular disease), are a significant risk factor for disease severity. According to the CDC, among adults hospitalized with COVID-19, fully 90% reported at least one underlying chronic health condition (see chart). Additionally, it is important to recognize, that approximately 80% of chronic health conditions are preventable through lifestyle choices.

Further, obesity appears to be a significant factor. According to an NYU study published in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases, “Though patients aged younger than 60 years are generally considered a lower risk group of Covid-19 disease severity, based on data from our institution, obesity appears to be a previously unrecognized risk factor for hospital admission and need for critical care. This has important and practical implications, where nearly 40 percent of adults in the US are obese with a BMI 30 or higher.”

Chronic health conditions, such as obesity and hypertension, do not happen overnight, “they stalk you in slow motion,” says Dr. David Katz, a preventative medicine specialist, which is part of the reason why they are often so difficult for people to address. Addressing them is critically important, however, and taking steps to eat well, engage in physical activity, and get enough sleep, “can affect how your immune system functions in a matter of hours, and certainly a matter of days” according to Dr. Katz.

Now is the time as employers and HR professionals to reinvigorate our organizational wellness programs, and assist our teams in addressing chronic health issues. Whether your approach to organizational wellness is infused into the culture of your organization or you are just beginning, there are numerous resources available to assist in growing your program. Remember, lifestyle choices are the single biggest driver of chronic health conditions. Change will not be easy, but it so incredibly important.