Medical researchers have been telling Americans for a long, long time that the sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits lead down the road to premature death, and now the SARS-CoV-2 virus is delivering on that warning with a vengeance.
Yes, the virus can make some young, healthy people ill, though many never develop symptoms. And yes, the virus can manifest itself as the disease COVID-19 in some of the young leading to lengthy illnesses, slow recoveries and some deaths.
But as the death count rises daily, the mountain of data is making it unavoidably clear that COVID-19 is not an equal-opportunity killer. It singles out the weak among us and the old because they are most often the weakest.
Basically, COVID-19 is treating humans like nature treats wildlife, and our ability to stem the assault with technology old and new – while improving every day – has not gone that well.
More than 575,000 around the world – almost 140,000 of them American citizens – are dead as of this writing, according to the Worldometers tracker, and no one is exactly sure how to stop the spread of the disease without killing the economy.
Lockdowns have worked in Alaska and elsewhere, but people can’t stay locked down forever.
Devastated by COVID-19, the economically crippled Northeast U.S. is now going back to work even as people continue to die. Forty-two more died in New York on Monday to bring the COVID total there to 32,445.
If you’ve followed the pandemic even half closely, you’re sure to have noticed the beating Sweden has taken for failing to follow the global rush to lockdowns to help minimize the damage to its economy and because Swedish epidemiologist Anders Tegnell concluded the benefits of a lockdown weren’t worth the costs to a democracy.
“Sweden’s COVID-19 infection rate of 43.2 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants is lower than Spain’s (58.1) and Italy’s (55.4), but is higher than reported rates in the United States (32.1) and Brazil (14.3), according to Johns Hopkins University,” U.S News and World Report recorded a little over a month ago.
“Last week, the country’s former state epidemiologist, Annika Linde, said in retrospect she believes an early lockdown could have saved lives in Sweden.”
Tegnell was then taking a public pummelling from all directions, but things look a little different today. Sweden’s death rate has crept up to 54.8 per 100,000, a 27 percent increase, since that June 3 report, but the rate in the U.S. has climbed to 41.7 per 100,000, a 30 percent increase, and is again on an upward trajectory, according to the Worldometer tracker.
(For comparison sake, Spain is now at 60.8 per 100,000, and Italy is at 57.8 per 100,000.)
Swedish deaths peaked in mid-April and have been falling steadily since. U.S. deaths peaked for the first time at about the same time as Sweden’s and then fell as much of the country locked down. With the lifting of lockdowns, deaths began to accelerate and have been on an upward trend since the start of July.
“COVID-19 infections are on the rise in 39 states,” Reuters reported on July 6, “with the country as a whole averaging some 50,000 new cases nearly every 24 hours in recent days. Sixteen states have posted record daily case counts so far this month.
“More states are also reporting a troubling increase in the percentage of COVID-19 diagnostic tests that come back positive – a key indicator of community spread that experts refer to as the rate of ‘positivity.'”
Face masks have become the norm in public spaces across the country, but the death toll continues to rise.
“The disease is raging — Florida reported 15,300 cases Sunday, the biggest single-day increase of the U.S. pandemic — and experts say the resurgence in the original battlegrounds has common causes. They include a population no longer willing to stay inside, Republicans who refuse face masks as a political statement, street protests over police violence and young people convinced the virus won’t seriously hurt them.”
Beliefs versus facts
The sad reality is that the conclusion reached by those young people is not just a belief; it is a fact – albeit one many in the country do not want to accept.
The New York City Department of Health reports 74 percent of the people dead there – more than 17,000 out of about 23,000 – are over the age of 65. Fewer than 4 percent of the dead – 876 to be exact – are under the age of 45.
Most of the fatal victims of COVID-19 were already battling chronic illnesses or dealing with what the medical community calls “comorbidities.” Their deaths follow a pattern seen around the world.
New York and New Jersey are ground zero for the pandemic in North America. The NY state death rate now stands at 166 per 100,000 people – about three times the rate in Sweden and more than 72 times the death rate in Alaska, according to the Worldometer tracker.
The demographic fingerprint of the disease in New York is pretty much the fingerprint of COVID-19 everywhere. More than 5,500 are dead in Sweden, but only about 600 were under the age of 70.
Some want to believe that everyone wearing masks in public will protect the elderly and those suffering from serious chronic diseases, but there is no evidence to support that belief. The data makes it clear how vulnerable the sick and old segment of the population.
Researchers from hard-hit Italy, reporting in the Journal of Gerontology in June, recorded only 124 previously healthy people dead – less than 5 percent – in a review of more than 3,000 COVID-19 fatalities in that country.
More than 450 of the dead had been suffering from a co-morbidity; 648 had been battling two; and 1,806 had been struggling with three or more.
“Hypertension, diabetes, and ischemic heart disease were the most common preexisting comorbidities,” the researchers reported. “The prevalence of ischemic heart disease, atrial fibrillation, heart failure, stroke, hypertension, dementia, COPD, and chronic renal failure was significantly higher in older patients 65 years old or older than younger adults, while obesity, chronic liver disease and HIV infection, were significantly more frequent in the younger patients.”
Among the dead aged 65 or older, 96.8 were admitted to the hospital with a comorbidity.
Fitter = safer
Against this backdrop, the conclusions reached by researchers in the United Kingdom crunching numbers from that country’s “Biobank” warrant some discussion. More than 400,000 Brits have data on file there.
Researchers data mining the bank found 972 who had suffered severe COVID-19 through June 20 and then sought to determine whether obesity or walking pace, a sign of general fitness, increased their risks of serious infection.
What they found is that obesity was a risk, but poor general fitness was an even bigger risk.
“Compared to normal-weight individuals,” they reported on the preprint service MedRxiv on Saturday, “the adjusted odds ratio (OR) for severe COVID-9 in those with obesity was 1.49. Compared to those with a brisk walking pace, the OR in slow walkers was 1.84.
“Slow walkers had the highest risk of severe COVID-19 regardless of obesity status. For example, compared to normal weight brisk walkers, the odds of severe COVID-19 in obese brisk walkers was 1.39, whereas the odds in normal weight slow walkers was 2.48.”
Lack of functional fitness, they concluded, “appears to be a risk factor for severe COVID-19 that is independent of obesity.”
The study by researchers from the University of Leicester and the Leicester Biomedical Research Centre has yet to be peer reviewed, but it tracks with the other research that has generally show that cardiopulmonary weaknesses increase the risks of serious and/or deadly COVID-19.
The British researchers chose to examine self-reported walking paces because it has already “been shown to be a strong predictor of mortality. Subjects with a self-reported slow walking pace have two to four times the risk of cardiovascular mortality compared to brisk walkers, whilst also being estimated to die up to 20 years earlier,” they noted.
“Indeed, self-reported walking pace has been shown to be a stronger predictor of
cardiovascular mortality than other measures of physical activity or function. These
strong associations with cardiovascular health are thought to reflect the fact that walking pace is a powerful marker of cardiopulmonary function and acts as a global measure of whole-body physical fitness, reserve and resilience.”
Risk of death for slow walkers has only increased with COVID-19 plaguing the planet.
Is anyone paying attention?
With government officials largely focused on slowing the spread of the disease – something best done with isolation and social distancing – there has been little discussion of what people can do to increase their odds of surviving the disease if they catch it or, for that matter, what they can do personally to avoid catching it.
Old folks in general and those suffering with chronic illnesses who think everyone wearing masks is going to protect them are being foolish. The best-case scenario is that masks will reduce the spread.
And there are scientists who question whether that is truly the case. The general consensus seems to be that masks can’t hurt. That doesn’t mean they help much or at all.
Anchorage is at this point pretty well masked in public spaces and the disease is surging.
The Anchorage Office of Emergency Management was today asking Anchorage residents to continue working from home or return to working from home if they can.
“Science shows that COVID-19 can infect people who share indoor spaces through tiny respiratory droplets, called aerosols, which are released when people talk, cough or sneeze,” the office reported. There is still some debate about aerosol spread, but there is no debate that the odds of infection increase the more time people spend close to each other or work in buildings with poor ventilation.
Where people must work around each other, the emergency management office suggested employers increase fresh air circulation in their buildings and juggle work schedules so employees start and end their shifts at different hours to reduce individual contacts.
The municipality reported it is “aware of COVID-19 cases connected with a variety of businesses, agencies, and organizations.” One of the agencies revealing such a connection on Monday was the Anchorage Police Department.
It should be clear by this point to anyone reading here that if you’re old and/or vulnerable, the safest thing you can do is stay home. Order your groceries online and have them delivered. If you need to get out of the house, take a walk in the neighborhood where you will run into no one or go for a drive by yourself to see Alaska and avoid contact with others.
Avoiding infection isn’t rocket science. COVID-19 doesn’t fall from the sky. To catch the disease, you have to come in contact with someone shedding the virus, and then the virus has to get into your body either through your nose, your mouth or possibly your eyes.
If you’re vulnerable and absolutely must go into public places, invest in some personal protective equipment – PPE as the medical community calls it – and study up on how to use it properly.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers detailed instructions on what you need and its use. Most people don’t need it and shouldn’t buy it to avoid causing shortages for health-care workers.
But if you are truly vulnerable and truly must venture into public places – criteria that cover very few people – this is the only sensible way to protect yourself. To have the least possible impact on medical professionals in need of N95 protective masks still in short supply, limit your purchases and reuse the masks as outlined here.
Most importantly, study the PPE safety protocol and follow it in detail. You’ll likely find it a pain, thus making the idea of staying at home or merely well away from others more attractive.
As for the young and healthy,the CDC says the amount of daily physical activity needed to maintain functional fitness is 150 minutes per week. And there is no better time to work on improving your general fitness than now. There might someday be a vaccine for COVID-19, but nobody should count on that magic bullet.
As Josh Bloom, the director of chemical and pharmaceutical science at the American Council on Science and Health and University of Maryland chemist Katherine Seley-Radtke have observed, “vaccine science is notoriously unpredictable. Despite decades of research, there is still no vaccine to prevent viral infections like HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, herpes simplex, Zika, West Nile or norovirus (the ‘stomach flu’ that continues to perpetually plague the cruise ship industry).
“Even vaccines that have been successfully developed may have limitations,” they wrote on the website of The Baltimore Sun. “For example, the annual influenza vaccine is not always effective because of viral mutations and the presence of different flu strains that arise after the vaccine has been manufactured each year.”
It is possible with COVID-19 that a vaccine might prove ineffective because of the way our bodies react – or don’t – to the new disease. A variety of studies have now found that COVID-19 antibodies in the blood of those with the disease fade quickly. The lastest appeared over the weekend.
Vaccines depend on our bodies producing antibodies against a disease by being fooled into believing we’ve been infected. If those antibodies fade as fast in vaccinated people as they do in many COVID-19 sufferers, a vaccine might not work for a long enough time to be generally worthwhile.
The same cannot be said of general fitness. It is a long term treatment and a regularly available aide to fighting off all diseases. If you’ve ever needed a life and death excuse to start getting fit, this might be it.