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Treating COVID-19 in patients with diabetes


Patients with diabetes may be at extra risk for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) mortality, and doctors treating them need to keep up with the latest guidelines and expert advice.

Most health advisories about COVID-19 mention diabetes as one of the high-risk categories for the disease, likely because early data coming out of China, where the disease was first reported, indicated an elevated case-fatality rate for COVID-19 patients who also had diabetes.

In an article published in JAMA, Zunyou Wu, MD, and Jennifer M. McGoogan, PhD, summarized the findings from a February report on 44,672 confirmed cases of the disease from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The overall case-fatality rate (CFR) at that stage was 2.3% (1,023 deaths of the 44,672 confirmed cases). The data indicated that the CFR was elevated among COVID-19 patients with preexisting comorbid conditions, specifically, cardiovascular disease (CFR, 10.5%), diabetes (7.3%), chronic respiratory disease (6.3%), hypertension (6%), and cancer (5.6%).

The data also showed an aged-related trend in the CFR, with patients aged 80 years or older having a CFR of 14.8% and those aged 70-79 years, a rate of 8.0%, while there were no fatal cases reported in patients aged 9 years or younger (JAMA. 2020 Feb 24. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.2648).

Those findings have been echoed by the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. The American Diabetes Association and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists have in turn referenced the CDC in their COVID-19 guidance recommendations for patients with diabetes.

Guidelines were already in place for treatment of infections in patients with diabetes, and at this stage, it seems that the same guidelines would extend to those patients who are also diagnosed with COVID-19, which is caused by the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

In general, patients with diabetes – especially those whose disease is not controlled, or not well controlled – can be more susceptible to more common infections, such as influenza and pneumonia, possibly because hyperglycemia can subdue immunity by disrupting function of the white blood cells.

Glucose control is key

An important factor in any form of infection control in patients with diabetes seems to be whether or not a patient’s glucose levels are well controlled, according to comments from members of the editorial advisory board for Clinical Endocrinology News. Good glucose control, therefore, could be instrumental in reducing both the risk for and severity of infection.

Dr. Paul Jellinger, Center for Diabetes & Endocrine Care, Hollywood, Fla.

Dr. Paul Jellinger

Paul Jellinger, MD, of the Center for Diabetes & Endocrine Care, Hollywood, Fla., said that, over the years, he had not observed higher infection rates in general in patients with hemoglobin A1c levels below 7, or even higher. However, “a bigger question for me, given the broad category of ‘diabetes’ listed as a risk for serious coronavirus complications by the CDC, has been: Just which individuals with diabetes are really at risk? Are patients with well-controlled diabetes at increased risk as much as those with significant hyperglycemia and uncontrolled diabetes? In my view, not likely.”

Alan Jay Cohen, MD, agreed with Dr. Jellinger. “Many patients have called the office in the last 10 days to ask if there are special precautions they should take because they are reading that they are in the high-risk group because they have diabetes. Many of them are in superb, or at least pretty good, control. I have not seen where they have had a higher incidence of infection than the general population, and I have not seen data with COVID-19 that specifically demonstrates that a person with diabetes in good control has an increased risk,” he said.

Dr. Alan Jay Cohen medical director at Baptist Medical Group: The Endocrine Clinic, Memphis, Tenn.

Dr. Alan Jay Cohen

“My recommendations to these patients have been the same as those given to the general population,” added Dr. Cohen, medical director at Baptist Medical Group: The Endocrine Clinic, Memphis.

Herbert I. Rettinger, MD, also conceded that poorly controlled blood sugars and confounding illnesses, such as renal and cardiac conditions, are common in patients with long-standing diabetes, but “there is a huge population of patients with type 1 diabetes, and very few seem to be more susceptible to infection. Perhaps I am missing those with poor diet and glucose control.”

Philip Levy, MD, picked up on that latter point, emphasizing that “endocrinologists take care of fewer patients with diabetes than do primary care physicians. Most patients with type 2 diabetes are not seen by us unless the PCP has problems [treating them],” so it could be that PCPs may see a higher number of patients who are at a greater risk for infections.

Ultimately, “good glucose control is very helpful in avoiding infections,” said Dr. Levy, of the Banner University Medical Group Endocrinology & Diabetes, Phoenix.


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