Diabetes and COVID forge deadly ‘perfect storm’

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By Jerry Mitchell
Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Amid the worst pandemic in a century, Mississippi is leading the nation in increased diabetes deaths per capita, according to a just-released study.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Tim Moore, president and CEO of the Mississippi Hospital Association. “We already have an unhealthy population in Mississippi because of poverty and lower access to health care, and now we have a population that’s getting very sick.”

Mississippi has seen more than 7,880 deaths from COVID. According to the state Department of Health, diabetes was an underlying condition in 1,347 of those deaths.

Researchers found that between Jan. 1 and Nov. 3 of last year, Mississippi (which has a 14.8% adult diabetes rate that trails only West Virginia) saw diabetes deaths rise 1.43 times higher than the historical level. That is the nation’s highest.

This revelation comes as Mississippi faces its fiercest battle in the pandemic, COVID-19’s Delta variant causing hospitals to be flooded with people in critical condition, including “young people, expectant mothers, and newborns,” Moore said.

The state’s largest hospital, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, has been forced to set up two field hospitals, one of them in a parking garage. Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian organization that provides medical aid to people and areas in need, set up a third field hospital in another UMMC parking garage.

Lee McCall, CEO of Neshoba General Hospital in Philadelphia, tweeted out to the governor: “Hospitals and healthcare workers need you to help us. Where are you? We are overwhelmed with the surge of Covid and understaffed to safely care for our patients. Our incredible staff are holding it together but we are all at our breaking point.”

Dr. Kristen C. Crawford chimed in, “I feel like all medical professionals are trying to get people in the lifeboats as the Titanic sinks and society is in the ballroom eating, drinking, being merry, and debating whether or not the ship is actually sinking …”

Daryl Weaver, CEO for King’s Daughters Medical Center in Yazoo City, told MCIR that this is the most stressful time he and his colleagues have faced in more than three decades.

Those on the frontlines – doctors, nurses, and so many other workers – “are my heroes,” he said. “They are doing heroic things every day, just because it’s the right thing to do.”

Moore said staffs at Mississippi hospitals are “completely exhausted. I don’t see how they’re doing it. … We’ve got 1,500 fewer nurses than we had during the first wave of the pandemic, and now we’re exceeding those numbers.”

Currently, 97% of those who have contracted COVID in Mississippi aren’t fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health.

Nationwide, more than 51% of Americans are fully vaccinated, but in Mississippi that number is less than 36%. (The state is in a virtual tie with Alabama for last place.)

Medical experts are urging those with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes to get the vaccine because research shows that COVID hits them harder, according to the Mayo Clinic. “With diabetes there is more inflammation in the body. And so, with COVID, that inflammatory state gets worse much more quickly, so that could be one reason.”

Moore said vaccinations are the “only tool we have right now to fight the disease. Until we increase the number of vaccinations, we are going to see these (COVID) numbers go up and continue to see variants.”

He compared it to a tub overflowing. “The first thing you do is cut off the spigot,” he said.

In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower put his weight behind polio vaccinations for every schoolchild, saying, “We all hope that the dread disease of poliomyelitis can be eradicated from our society.”

Less than a quarter century later, the nation was polio free.

Gov. Tate Reeves has taken to the airwaves to encourage Mississippians to get the COVID vaccine. Last year, he imposed a mask mandate, but said recently he has no intentions to reimpose it.

“If you look at those individuals under the age of 12, what you find is that it is very rare that kids under the age of 12 have anything other than the sniffles,” he told reporters.

That remark drew Reeves criticism for failing to note that four Mississippi children had died so far from COVID. A fifth died days later.

More than 200 children have been hospitalized because of the disease, and the recent death toll included two pregnant women.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told Fox News Sunday that “kids are very seriously at risk” with the new variant: “I think traditionally people kind of considered, ‘Well, you know, kids aren’t going to get that sick with this. The virus won’t really bother them.’ That’s not the evidence.”

A number of Mississippi schools that opened with no mask mandates have since seen COVID outbreaks and imposed mandates.

In 2020, the U.S. saw an increase of deaths of nearly 18%, mostly due to COVID, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But researchers also found significant increases in other leading causes of death. The largest? Diabetes deaths, which rose 15.4%.

Mississippi and the nation keep responding reactively to diabetes when we should be fighting proactively, said Brandon pharmacist Ryan Harper, president of the Mississippi Pharmacy Board. “We’re trying to put a Band-Aid on an arterial bleed.”

Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters. Sign up for MCIR’s newsletters at www.mississippicir.org.
This story was funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. It also was produced in partnership with the Community Foundation for Mississippi’s local news collaborative, which is independently funded in part by Microsoft Corp. The collaborative includes the Clarion Ledger, the Jackson Advocate, Jackson State University, Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, Mississippi Public Broadcasting and Mississippi Today.