CHICAGO — While the nation debated the veracity of conspiracy theories on President Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis, I began to worry about the one thing The Donald, quarantined Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, hospitalized former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and 42.4 percent of Americans and I all have in common.
We’re dangerously fat. As soon as Trump tweeted his positive test results, news stories quoted respected physicians and “Dr. Oz” dropping the O-word — “Obesity,” that is — issuing speculative warnings that Trump’s fast-food physique might cause the president extreme suffering, or worse.
That is a touchy topic in the anti-body shaming world we live in. Obesity as a contributing factor to severe coronavirus complications remains a mostly taboo subject that most polite people — like my mother, for instance — don’t bring up in plus-sized company.
As a fat man, I will take certain liberties discussing topics that affect people of heft. Still, back in April, a regular-sized Chicago journalist accused me— a reporter of girth — of fat-shaming Gov. Pritzker when I publicly wondered: “Does everybody look like they’re getting fatter during the pandemic, or is it just me and the governor?”
I don’t know why it’s such a sensitive topic. Last time I checked, lard ass is not a protected class of people. Still, some news outlets tip-toe around the beer-belly risks associated with COVID-19.
Even the Youngstown, Ohio, news station that localized the fat-guy COVID-19 angle with headline pun: “Mercy Health doctor weighs in on President Trump’s COVID diagnosis” — quoted a doctor who said “obesity is a risk factor,” along with a long list of other underlying conditions including heart disease, kidney disease, lung disease and a person’s age.
Hopefully, Trump’s coronavirus eliminates the negative stigma associated with warning fat people that having a body-by-McDonald’s could be the thing that kills you if catch COVID-19.
Carolina Population Center researcher Barry Popkin agrees.
“It’s not fat shaming,” Popkin said. “It’s a matter of risk and warning them to be more cautious. Obesity means you’ve got to be more careful. It’s the same thing we say to people in nursing homes and people with underlying conditions. But with obesity, you need to be even more careful.”
Popkin is not fat, but he knows what he’s talking about.
He led a massive meta-analysis of research studies around the globe that focused on the effects COVID-19 has on obese people published last month in Obesity Reviews, a monthly peer-reviewed medical journal.
The study didn’t have good news for guys like me, Gov. Pritzker and the 61 percent of people in the Chicago metro area that the Centers for Disease Control says are either overweight or obese.
“You’re more than double, essentially 130 percent more likely to be hospitalized than someone who is not obese. Also, if you’re obese, you’re 74 percent more likely to be put in an intensive care unit. And you’re 46 percent more likely to die,” Popkin said.
“So essentially, linkages to serious outcomes with obesity are so much greater than we’ve seen for … diabetes, hypertension, a separate cancer. It’s bigger than anything besides being 80 years old and getting COVID.”
About three-quarters of obese people are diabetic and hypertensive, but that’s not the only reason fat folks are more likely to suffer the harshest symptoms of COVID-19, Popkin’s research found.
Obese folks have reduced lung capacity — and worsened sleep apnea. And that makes COVID-19, a disease that attacks your lungs, extremely dangerous. Obese people have a lot of adipose tissue that Popkin says is “always inflamed and has lots of metabolic changes that reduces immune function.”
“Your lungs are filled with fat cells pressing in on them. You don’t have as much lung capacity physically, let alone functioning well,” he said. “So, with lung function down you’re just more at risk.”
Just talking to Popkin about the study made me feel anxious. Most fat people, if we’re being honest, probably didn’t need The World Bank to fund a study to tell us that. We know.
Frankly, we prefer when scientists focus their COVID-19 warnings based on racial lines and the diabetics, the immune-compromised, the hypertensive smokers and the hard-drinkers suffering from cirrhosis.
That way, if we’re not one of them, we can continue to lie to ourselves about the odds of getting stuck on a ventilator if the coronavirus catches up to us.
Because fat ladies and gentlemen know polite people who don’t want to offend fatties — like our girlfriends and politically correct media — aren’t going to nag us about losing weight before it’s too late.
Skinny reporters wouldn’t dare ask Pritzker for his thoughts on the extreme risks he faces being the nation’s fattest governor during the coronavirus crisis.
That would be rude. But, you know what, it also might save lives.
Pritkzer has made it pretty clear in dozens of press conferences that he thinks Illinois’ response to the COVID-19 crisis is a model the nation should follow. Some people actually agree.
And this is a chance for the governor to be a leader on coronavirus-obesity awareness.
So for the sake of my fellow chubby Americans, I asked Popkin for his honest take on Illinois’ rotund governor’s public health leadership in hopes we might all learn something.
“He’s done great things by you, except his weight is not what we like. … You can’t live in America and not know that. I would say to him, ‘You better be careful and … being quarantined and careful should be the rule 0f the day for you.'” Popkin said.
“Unless [Pritzker] is standing at a microphone, he should be wearing a mask at all times. It’s not shaming. It’s just saying to someone who is obese, you’re more at risk.”
Did you hear that fellow fat people?
Wear a mask all the time. You’ll eat less.
Mark Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting, wrote and produced the Peabody Award-winning series, “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.” He was a producer, writer and narrator for the “Chicagoland” docu-series on CNN, and a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary, “16 Shots.More from Mark Konkol:
This article originally appeared on the Chicago Patch