When someone becomes seriously ill from COVID-19 and gets hospitalized or dies, there’s a tendency to wonder if that person had other ongoing health problems that made the outcome more likely.

Two out of three Alaska adults are at risk of serious illness from COVID

Then there’s the tendency to think those types of health problems affect only other people, not you or your family.

But a new analysis in Alaska shows they affect most of us: Two out of three Alaska adults have an underlying health condition that can make COVID-19 more serious. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states strong evidence links serious COVID-19 illness with current or former smoking, obesity, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease or heart attacks, and chronic kidney disease. A serious COVID-19 illness means being hospitalized, admitted to the intensive care unit, or put on a ventilator, even dying.

These underlying health conditions are often called chronic diseases because they can continue for years, even a lifetime. Many of these health concerns can be managed with changes to nutrition and physical activity, and sometimes medication. Some, like smoking, can be stopped with support. Most can be prevented. The two most common ongoing health problems are obesity and smoking. Almost 1 out of 2 Alaska adults (47%) have obesity or currently smoke.

“What we’re experiencing right now is the intersection between infectious diseases like the COVID-19 virus and chronic diseases and behaviors like obesity, diabetes and smoking,” said Karol Fink, manager of Alaska’s Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion section. “Living with an ongoing disease can make it harder for your body to fight viruses like COVID-19.”

“Learning about this connection between infectious and ongoing diseases has reinforced the value of being active every day, choosing healthy foods and drinks, never smoking or quitting if you do, getting enough sleep, managing stress and taking care of ourselves in all kinds of ways,” Fink said.

The Section of Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and other sections within the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services use many strategies shown to prevent and manage these ongoing diseases. This includes working with partners to make it easier for Alaskans to choose active ways like walking or biking to get to schools, stores and workplaces. Programs promote screenings to detect and treat problems like diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer as early as possible. The Section runs public education campaigns focused on helping Alaska children grow up at a healthy weight and preventing and reducing smoking and vaping.

“This pandemic has really reinforced how important it is for all of us to make these daily decisions that help us stay healthy for a lifetime,” Fink said.

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