We have all been deluged with local, state, national and international statistics about COVID-19 in recent months.
The term “underlying conditions” is often cited in describing those who have become critically ill or who have passed away. There has been more limited information about the actions individuals and communities can take to improve the chances of fighting COVID-19 and other deadly viruses and diseases.
Eddie Olivarez, the chief administrator for Hidalgo County Health and Human Services, said COVID-19 is “tremendously impacting those who have co-occurring medical disorders.” Those conditions include HIV, cancer, hepatitis, advanced diabetes and advanced hypertension. The troubling impact of these disorders is in the COVID-19 statistics, as well as in the insurance costs for employers across the Rio Grande Valley.
While this is a sobering fact, “we are very much in control,” Olivarez said.
That sentiment Dr. John Krouse, the dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine, echoes.
“We know that people with obesity and people with diabetes and hypertension – especially uncontrolled diabetes and hypertension – have a higher likelihood of critical disease and their death rate is higher,” Krouse said.
Health is Key
Individuals who take control of their health, he said, are less likely to be in these high-risk groups. Staying active, getting weight within a normal range, avoiding sugary drinks and eating healthy are important first steps to take. Even slightly overweight people, Krouse said, can reduce their risk of a pre-diabetes diagnosis by losing a mere 10 pounds.
Krouse stressed that parents need to start on the “front end” by raising their children with healthy habits.
“Stop giving them sodas,” Krouse said. “They’re deadly.”
Fighting COVID-19 is not the only reason individuals, and our community, should address obesity.
“Obesity puts us at risk for multiple health problems that impact every organ system,” said Sarah Rogers, a family nurse practitioner at Medi-Weightloss McAllen.
These health problems include high cholesterol and triglycerides, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. There is also heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, depression and liver disease. Being your healthiest self is not solely about the number you see when you step on a scale.
“We do not focus on weight,” Rogers said. “I tell every patient we are not here to make you ‘skinny.’ We are here to help you learn to be healthy.”
In addition to weight, there are other important factors such as blood pressure and body composition (fat percentage). Waist-and-neck circumference are also important wellness numbers, Rogers said. She encourages individuals to set long- and short-term health goals and to surround themselves with people who will provide support and the tools they need to be successful.
Changing the Culture
As individuals and as communities, we can start by shifting the focus of the questions we are asking.
“We still have not built a culture of health,” Krouse said. “Our focus is on, ‘I’ve got a disease. Cure me. When will there be a vaccine? Is there a pill I can take? Will I be able to get a ventilator?’ I am not downplaying these concerns, but our focus should be on getting healthy. We have not addressed health as a public-health crisis yet. It is something we are going to have to address,” he said.
Community-wide health initiatives and building a culture of health have the potential to significantly decrease the number of people severely impacted by COVID-19 and other viruses and diseases. It would also reduce health-insurance costs for employers.
One local elected official who is a leader in the movement for community-wide health is Hidalgo County Commissioner Eddie Cantu.
“Even before COVID-19, Hidalgo County began working on wellness,” Cantu said, “especially to address diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.”
Getting People Moving
Hidalgo County’s wellness movement includes the completion of the first of three segments of the Precinct 2 Hike-and-Bike Trail that starts in San Juan and will eventually connect San Juan, Pharr and McAllen and run for nearly eight miles. The second segment, he said, is approximately 80 percent complete.
“The growth at our trail has been about 500 percent,” Cantu said. “While we were sheltered in place, Hidalgo-County residents really took advantage of it.”
In addition to providing the community with a hike-and-bike trail, Precinct 2 also opened the HC P2 Indoor Sports Complex, where youth can play baseball and softball. Hidalgo-County employees can also work out Monday through Friday, before and after work. There is no charge.
Before COVID-19, the complex opened to the public every Saturday for health presentations and for individuals and businesses in the RGV to educate the public about health and wellness. These events will resume once the County deems it safe to do so.
Although COVID-19 statistics provide us with critical information about the progress of the virus in our community and beyond, creating a culture of health can provide lasting benefits that reverberate throughout our community.