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U of M's Osterholm says obesity could be deadly factor in U.S. COVID-19 outbreak

Gov. Walz said on Monday that obesity is a factor the state will start looking at.

University of Minnesota infectious disease expert Dr. Michael Osterholm has become a leading voice on the novel coronavirus pandemic, and he spoke in an ominous tone during a Twin Cities radio appearance Monday morning. 

Speaking with Dave Lee on WCCO-AM 830, Osterholm expressed worry that America's obesity rate could prove to be a deadly factor as the COVID-19 outbreak progresses in the coming weeks and months. 

"One piece of news that I think is really discouraging for me is when we talk about the case fatality rates – the percent of people who die from this. We've tried to extrapolate numbers from China and elsewhere, which is very difficult because this disease is very much tied to underlying risk factors, meaning what other conditions you have," said Osterholm. 

"One of the ones that was relatively absent in China in the older population was obesity. We're beginning to see data out of New York where there's a number of cases in the 30, 40, and 50-year-old age group that are very severe. People are dying and requiring extensive intensive-care medicine requirements, and that is among those who are obese. 

"We know that about 45 percent of the U.S. population right now, over the age of 50, are obese. I worry that we are going to see a major increase in case fatality rates here in this country compared to what's been seen in some other countries in the world just because of that somewhat unique risk factor to us in the U.S."

There are international studies out of Europe that suggest there is a link to more severe COVID-19 symptoms for overweight people. More from the New York Times on the studies: 

"Moreover, in the United States, obesity-related metabolic conditions may put the public at exceptional risk. Today, more than two of three adults have high body weight, and 42 percent have obesity, among the highest rates in the world. Almost two in 10 children have obesity. Excessive weight, and the poor-quality diet that causes it, is strongly associated with insulin resistance, chronic inflammation and other abnormalities that may lower immunity to viral respiratory infection or predispose to complications."

In the United Kingdom, a recent study by the National Health Service’s Intensive Care National Audit and Research Center revealed that 127 of 196 COVID-19 patients who were in intensive care were overweight. 

The Minnesota Department of Health tells Bring Me The News that it does not currently collect obesity or body mass index (BMI) measurements of COVID-19 patients, but those details will be tracked in the "near future" for patients that require hospitalization. 

"We're all learning a lot about this," said Walz. "I saw something today and it's way too early, but there's some international research that one of the reasons we might see higher death tolls here than China is obesity rates are higher here."

MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm says that models they're using to forecast the epidemic's progress will become more reliable as more data about Minnesota demographics and underlying health conditions in Minnesotans becomes available. 

"I absolutely believe that we're going to know more in a week to 10 days based on the experience of other communities and our own about how close that original model was to what's emerging," said Malcolm. 

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