Medical group: Fix poor U.S. health for next pandemic

COVID-19 exposed flaws in personal, institutional health

BOSTON — Going into the pandemic, America as a whole was hardly the picture of health.

For example, the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), completed before the pandemic, found 73 percent of adults 20 and older had obesity or were overweight. And, in the most recent CDC statistics, the number of diabetics rose from less than one percent of the population in 1958 to more than seven percent by 2015.

Diabetes, like several other chronic diseases, hits Black and Latinx Americans disproportionately more than White Americans. And those groups tend to have unequal access to needed health care.

“There were many things that we have learned during this pandemic,” said Stephanie Zaza, MD, MPH, president of the American College of Preventive Medicine. “There were so many underlying problems and what happens in a crisis suddenly everyone was so much more aware of them.”

The question for Zaza and others in public health and preventive care is whether awareness will translate into action -- such that America will be in better shape the next time a virus with global ambitions comes calling.

“We need, as a society, to decide if we can and have the will to try to mitigate those health disparities and try to go as far upstream as we can to address those things and help people -- individuals, and communities, be as healthy as possible so there’s more resilience once the next crisis happens,” Zaza said. “And that could be a natural disaster, it could be an opiate surge, it could really be anything. Not just a pandemic.”

So far, COVID-19 has killed more than 560,000 Americans. And no one can say for sure that number would be significantly smaller if the country, as a whole, was leaner. But obesity is a risk factor for more severe COVID-19 -- and it opens the door to other COVID-19 risk factors.

At the moment, at least in one health area, things are off to a bad start for the next pandemic, suggests Zaza.

“We’re seeing chronic diseases going underdiagnosed and undertreated right now,” she said. “We need to get back into a normal rhythm of getting screenings.”

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