President Joe Biden might want to believe the nation is facing a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,’‘ but the reality is that the United States is largely facing the same pandemic of the fat and unfit it has faced for decades.
Newly developed mRNA vaccines are proving remarkably good at protecting the vulnerable, and most everyone else – especially those over age 50 or with serious comorbidities – from Covid-19, and everyone should give serious thought to getting vaccinated.
But as with the flu and flu vaccines before this, getting vaccinated isn’t going to prevent all of the people already in ill health from dying in a country where “health care” has become more about medicine, a big business these days, and egos than about keeping people healthy.
“I know that many people think that medicine should be devoted to promoting wellness, and that is probably the right approach,” Dr. Milton Packer confessed in an essay posted at MedPage Today earlier this month. “But to me and to the generation of physicians trained 40 to 50 years ago, the whole point of medicine was to understand how the body worked for one purpose, and one purpose only:
“I prided myself on cheating death. In my mind’s eye, I had succeeded in cheating death hundreds — perhaps thousands — of times. My experiences as a physician reinforced the explicit assumption that there was always something that medicine could do to make things whole again.
“Until it couldn’t.”
Sometimes people, like old buildings, are in such bad shape they can’t be saved, and then crumple.
As Centers for Disease Control Director Rochelle Walensky told ABC’s Good Morning America last week, “the overwhelming number of deaths, over 75 percent (among the vaccinated), occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities.”
“So really, these are people who were unwell to begin with. And yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron. This means not only just to get your primary series [of COVID-19 vaccines] but to get your booster series, and yes, we’re really encouraged by these results.”
Her comments came in the wake of a Jan. 7 CDC examination of 1.2 million vaccinated people showing vaccinations hugely successful but not foolproof. More than 2,200 people suffered significant breakthrough infections; 189 became seriously ill, and 36 died, according to the report.
The study took place before the more infectious and now dominant Omicron variant arrived on the scene. The new variant appears to be less deadly than its predecessors but has proven itself much better at avoiding vaccines.
That could make it, as is the case with flu, a greater threat to those living with chronic diseases or old age even if vaccinated. The CDC has for years recommended these people get vaccinated against the flu because of the increased risks of serious disease linked to their pre-existing conditions.
Walensky’s observations on SARS-CoV-2 were in line with what the data should tell any scientist, but for her blunt honesty, she predictably came under fire as callous toward the fundamentally unhealthy.
“‘Abhorent’: Disability Advocates Slam CDC Director for Comments on ‘Encouraging’ Covid Deaths,” headlined Rolling Stone, and the World Socialist Web Site went so far as to declare her statements “an embrace of eugenics by the Biden administration.
“‘This is eugenicist,’ lawyer and disability activist Matthew Cortland, who is chronically ill, wrote on Twitter. ‘The problem is that the people running @CDCgov, including @CDCDirector, **fundamentally believe** it’s ‘encouraging’ if disabled and chronically ill people die. And all of their decisions are informed by, and enact, that belief.’
“None of this is hyperbole. Walensky’s comments express the turn on the part of the White House and dominant sections of the US political establishment toward an open embrace of the view that the lives of the chronically ill, the disabled, and the elderly are fundamentally valueless.”
The unfortunate biological truth is that Walensky was only stating what has been obvious since the SARS-CoV-2 virus first arrived on the global stage: Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, predominately kills those with multiple co-morbidities and the old, who are naturally suffering from immunosenescence.
Many of them have died with Covid-19 in the past two years. So many died in this country that a peer-reviewed study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS) estimated that life expectancy fell by 1.13 years in 2020.
To put this in perspective, however, one should recognize that a peer-reviewed study published in PLOS-One a decade ago concluded that non-smoking, U.S. residents aged 40 to 49 were, on average, already losing more than four times that many years due to obesity-related diseases (ORDs).
“…We found that the mean life years lost associated with ORDs for U.S. non-smoking black males aged 40 to 49 years with a body mass index (BMI) above 40 kilograms per square meter (kg/m²) was 5.43 years, which translates to a 7.5 percent reduction in total life years.
“White males of the same age range and same degree of obesity lost 5.23 life years on average – a 6.8 percent reduction in total life years, followed by black females (5.04 years, a 6.5 percent reduction in life years), and white females (4.7 years, a 5.8 percent reduction in life years). Overall, ORDs increased chances of dying and lessened life years by 0.2 to 11.7 years depending on gender, race, BMI classification, and age.”
BMI is a less than perfect measure of obesity. Among its problems is that it over-estimates the body-fat percentage of people with short legs and longer torsos, such as Alaska Inuits.
The American Heart Association considers a BMI between 18.5 and 25 kg/m² to be normal weight, a BMI between 25 kg/m² and 29.9 kg/m² to be overweight, and a BMI at or above 30 kg/m² to be obese.
A 5-foot, 4-inch woman needs to reach a weight of 174 pounds or more to qualify as obese. The CDC in 2018 estimated this as the average height of U.S. women and calculated the average BMI for women was then on the verge of obesity.
It went from 28.2 in 1999-2000 to 29.6 by 2015-16, the last years for which data was available for the study. Men weren’t quite as close to being obese on average as women, but they were gaining weight at about the same rate, bulging from a BMI of 27.7 to 29.1.
Along with these weight gains have come steady increases in the ORDs – coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and sleeping problems, many types of cancer, clinical depression and anxiety, and more, according to the CDC, which now posts a pandemic specific warning on its webpage:
The link there takes one to the CDC’s Adult Obesity Prevalence Map that shows 16 states with an adult obesity prevalence at or above 35 percent: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.
Fat states = deadly states
Only three states on the list are below the U.S. national average of 259 Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Worldometer tracker, and two of those states – Iowa at 254 deaths per 100,000 and Ohio at 257,000 per 100,000 – are just barely under the average.
The only less-obese states in the top-10 are New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the nation; New York, where New York City has been the focal point for pandemic deaths; and Arizona.
New York City is the sixth most densely populated urban area in the country behind four cities in New Jersey and Kaser, NY, a small village of Hasidic Jews in the New York Metropolitan Area.
The ever-increasing number of people gathered in “dense urban areas coupled with the existence of efficient modes of transportation connecting such centers, make cities particularly vulnerable to the spread of epidemics,” Covid-19 researchers reported in a peer-reviewed paper in Nature in August.
Arizona is a different case. It was hit hard early in the pandemic, and some have blamed Gov. Doug Ducey for encouraging people in May 2020 to “get out and about, to take a loved one to dinner, to go retail shopping.”
Restaurants were, by then, already suspected hotspots for infection, and the CDC four months later reported that “adults with positive SARS-CoV-2 test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative SARS-CoV-2 test results.”
Arizona’s death rate now, it should be noted, is less than half of what it was this time a year ago despite a surge in infections, according to the Worldometer tracker. The seven-day average for infections peaked near 10,000 per day in mid-January 2021, but is now near 13,500.
Weekly deaths, however, are averaging 60 to 70 per day, about a third of what they were at their peak last year at this time.
The numbers there and elsewhere buttress Walensky’s conclusion that the omicron variant has brought “encouraging news,” or at least encouraging news on the Covid-19 front.
On the obesity front, a major factor in the country’s still leading causes of death – heart disease and cancer – nothing has changed.
Fat and getting fatter
If anything, the obesity problem has only grown. The Harvard Medical School blames the stress of the pandemic for putting pounds on some people.
“There was a great deal of stress during the first year of the pandemic,” Dr. Elizabeth Pegg Frates wrote at Harvard Health Publishing, “and stress is associated with increased cortisol. Increased cortisol has been associated with increased intake of hyperpalatable foods, which are foods high in salt, fat, or both. There is also evidence that our bodies metabolize food more slowly when under stress.”
Researchers looking at the records of 15 million patients found 39 percent gained weight during the pandemic. Overall, individual increases and decreases in weight were relatively small, but the average, unfortunately, continued a long-running national trend toward heavier, heavier and heavier.
Meanwhile, the SARS-CoV-2 virus was evolving to more easily target children, who’d largely been spared early in the pandemic. And the country now finds obese children – almost a fifth of all kids, according to the CDC – in greater danger with omicron running rampant.
There are 14.4 million obese children in the U.S., by the CDC estimate, and the country is probably lucky there aren’t more given the realities of changing lifestyles:
More fast food. More time spent watching TV or computer games instead of playing aerobic games. More processed food. Less everyday exercise as schools become less accessible by walking or bicycling.
Four out of five high school students now fail to meet the standards for minimum, weekly physical exercise, according to the CDC. The lack of activity combined with changes in diet has resulted in fewer calories burned and more calories consumed which is the perfect formula for putting on the pounds on the road to obesity.
And now a peer-reviewed study in Hospital Pediatrics warns that “a high proportion of hospitalized children from COVID-19 had obesity as comorbidity. Furthermore, obesity had a significant independent association with critical illness.”
The number of children killed by Covid-19 in the U.S. remains very, very small. Out of 825,083 deaths between Jan. 1, 2020 and Jan. 6, 2022, the CDC reports only 694 – 0.08 percent – were age 1`7 or younger.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which puts the deaths of children age 14 and under at about 1,000 per year would indicate that being a passenger in a car or truck remains far more of a threat to children than Covid-19.
Still, omicron is changing the dynamic, and it is hard to predict the future. So far it seems to present a milder form of the disease as did the flu epidemics that followed the pandemic flu of 1918-1919.
But those epidemics continued to this day and still kill tens of thousands of people every year. They cannot, however, begin to touch the toll the SARS-CoV-2 virus heaped on America’s elderly.
Of those 825,083 deaths, the CDC reports 615,861 – or 74.5 percent – involved people aged 65 or older. And most of them shared one thing in common – comorbidities. And many of those comorbidities were linked to lifestyle decisions, decisions often made early in life, to ignore the health importance of fitness and diet leading to what is now called metabolic syndrome.
And there is at this time no one pill or vaccine to prevent that.