As businesses and churches begin to gradually reopen during the COVID–19 pandemic, leaders urge those who are at risk for developing severe symptoms to stay home if possible and take extra precautions to avoid potential exposure. That group is usually defined as those aged 65 or more, and those with compromised immune systems.

But there is increasing evidence of another group of people at risk for severe symptoms – those with the disease of obesity.

“Obesity doesn’t put a person at risk for catching COVID-19,” said Dr. Carlos Galvani, a bariatric surgeon with the Tulane Bariatric Center. “But once infected, a person with obesity does have a higher risk of more serious complications. That population – people with a body mass index of 30 or more – should be taking the same precautions as someone over 65, regardless of their age.”

That is also the advice from the Northwell Health COVID-19 Research Consortium in New York, published in late April in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association. The data there described the clinical course and outcomes of 5,700 Northwell Health System patients hospitalized with COVID–19 – the largest hospitalized patient cohort to date in the United States — between March 1 and April 4.

“The study shows that 95% of patients under 65 who died from complications of COVID-19 were overweight or obese, and most had comorbidities like hypertension or diabetes,” Dr. Galvani said.“Also according to the study, patients with diabetes – which can be the result of obesity – were more likely to have received invasive mechanical ventilation, received treatment in the ICU or developed acute kidney disease.

“We are always thinking that the typical person with COVID-19 is of advanced age, but increasingly, younger patients under 40 with comorbid conditions are being affected by this disease,” he said. “A 40-year-old person with obesity should be considered a vulnerable population. Today more than ever, it’s important to remain vigilant with this at-risk population to reduce the prevalence of severe COVID disease.”

Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight provides a wide host of health benefits, in addition to providing protection against COVID-19’s worst symptoms.

“Quarantine presents unique issues with people stress eating and not being as active in their daily routines, which have been disrupted by the coronavirus. The spread of the COVID-19 is preventing people from getting adequate treatment for their obesity, whether it’s lifestyle modifications, medical treatment or even bariatric surgery,” Dr. Galvani said.

But healthy weight loss doesn’t occur overnight, even with bariatric surgery, he said, and people with obesity should be practicing COVID-19 precautions as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, including:

  • Stay home if possible
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Practice social distancing
  • Keep away from people who are sick
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces
  • Contact your doctor if you have concerns about COVID–19 or your health

“We’re all encouraged by the continued fall in COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations in our region, but we can’t let down our guard – especially those at risk,” Dr. Galvani said.

For more information about Tulane Health System’s COVID-19 response, please visit our online resource hub. To learn more about surgical weight–loss options, please visit the Tulane Bariatric Center website or call (504) 988-5110. In addition to in-person clinic visits, the center now offers virtual appointments and support groups.