Vaccines are Crucial for At-risk Populations

It is critical for physicians to urge patients with obesity to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as they are one of the highest risk patient populations.

With the widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and a deeper understanding of the virus, we are making great strides in our fight against the pandemic. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that COVID-19 may be here to stay (at least for now) and that we are going to learn to live with it. This is especially true as the virus mutates and variants drive new waves of infection in the US and beyond.

Frequent handwashing, mask-wearing, and social distancing are all ways the general public is slowing the spread of COVID-19. But for those with pre-existing conditions and chronic diseases—like obesity and other metabolic diseases—the virus is still extremely dangerous and potentially fatal. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that having obesity increases the likelihood of severe illness from COVID-19 and may triple the risk of hospitalization due to a COVID-19 infection.1

Understanding the Risks

Over the past year, we have come a long way in learning about COVID-19, but there are still many aspects of the virus that continue to puzzle the medical community. In particular, the various reactions patients have to COVID-19—some experience catastrophic effects while others are completely asymptomatic.

People with obesity have a 113% higher risk for hospitalization, a 74% higher risk for ICU admission, and a 48% higher risk of death as a result of COVID-19, according to research from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.2 This may be a result of correlations between obesity and other conditions that increase risk such as hypertension, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and chronic kidney and liver disease. What’s more, the pandemic has also led to conditions of chronic stress, which weakens immune systems and complicates recovery from COVID-19.

Combating Coronavirus

There is no doubt that the first line of defense against COVID-19 is the vaccines currently approved for emergency use, which have proven to be both safe and effective. The Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines are essential to combat COVID-19 and millions of people have been vaccinated with no significant issues. It is critical that the general public be fully vaccinated as soon as possible and that vulnerable groups, such as people with obesity and metabolic disorders, are prioritized.

In addition to the vaccine, there are a few lifestyle changes that can help patients reduce the risks of getting COVID-19, such as:

  • Eating a healthy diet. This should include a whole food diet and some degree of carbohydrate restriction for anyone with metabolic disease.
  • Exercising regularly. Whether it is taking a walk on a sunny day or opting for the stairs instead of an elevator, exercise at any level is essential. Remind patient that just 20-30 minutes of moderate exercise a day is proven to have a significant impact on the body’s natural defense system.3
  • Managing stress. Chronic stress can lead to increased levels of glucocorticoid, which may prompt inflammatory symptoms that impact overall immunity. Counsel patients try to manage stress with exercise, cognitive-behavioral techniques, and by maintaining a regular routine.

Prioritizing Health

Living in a pandemic has certainly put the importance of healthy living at the forefront. The crisis has impacted so many aspects of our lives, from how we connect to how we work to how we live.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 disproportionately impacts patients with obesity as they are one of the highest risk patient populations. For that reason, it is critical for physicians to urge patients with obesity to get vaccinated to ensure they are protected from the most serious complications of the virus.


For resources to help patients with obesity navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.

To learn more about the Obesity Management Association or to become a member, visit: www.obesitymedicine.org.

Dr Sarah Hallberg is an internationally recognized leader in nutritional management of type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases. Dr Hallberg founded IU Health Arnett’s Medically Supervised Weight Loss Program where she continues to serve as its medical director. She is an adjunct professor of clinical medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine, a registered exercise physiologist and a fellow of the Obesity Medicine Association and the National Lipid Association.

References: 1. Obesity, Race/Ethnicity, and COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/obesity-and-covid-19.html. Updated March 22, 2021. Accessed May 4, 2021.

2. Rodriguez A. 'Weight isn't always within your control': Why some states are prioritizing obesity patients for the COVID-19 vaccine. USA Today. March 6, 2021. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2021/03/06/covid-vaccine-cdc-states-prioritize-people-obesity-heres-why/6883235002/. Updated March 8, 2021. Accessed May 10, 2021.

3. Exercise and Immunity. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007165.htm. Reviewed January 23, 2020. Updated June 9, 2021. Accessed May 6, 2021.