For more than two million Americans who were locked up in prison during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a new worry on the horizon: an epidemic of diabetes that has been rising across the nation.
Researchers are observing an increase in new-onset hyperglycemia months after a COVID-19 infection, according to Paulo Fiorina, a doctor affiliated with Boston’s Children’s Hospital.
“These people were not diabetic before,” Fiorina told Alice McCarthy in 2021. “But during admission about 46 percent of the patients were found to have new hyperglycemia.” About 35 percent of the newly hyperglycemic remained about six months after infection, Fiorina said.
The study shows that COVID-19 attacks the pancreas resulting in abnormal sugar levels.
The virus affects the pancreas in three different ways, according to a Harvard Health blog published late last year. First, it directly damages pancreatic beta cells that produce insulin, reducing their ability to make enough insulin to keep blood sugars controlled. Second, as the virus replicates in the pancreas, it also can
damage the cells that are needed for proper insulin release. Third, the virus also seems to reprogram surviving cells, making them malfunction, which can wreak havoc with blood sugar regulation.
Diabetes mellitus refers to a group of diseases that affect how your body uses blood sugar (glucose). Glucose is vital for good health because it’s an important source of energy for the cells that make up muscles and tissues. It’s also the brain’s main source of fuel. Diabetes can lead to excess sugar in the bloodstream. This can lead to serious health problems.
At San Quentin over 2,600 incarcerated people were infected with COVID-19. Thousands of incarcerated people across the country were infected as well, increasing the chances that tens of thousands of prisoners could develop the multi-disease known as diabetes. This will undoubtedly help fuel an ongoing public health crisis, particularly amongst incarcerated people.
The other problem is that many prisoners gained 10 to 20 pounds during the 2020 nationwide shutdown. Many prisoners at San Quentin emerged from their sedentary lives much heavier than when the pandemic began, which also increases their chances of developing diabetes.
Earnest Woods gained 15 pounds during the pandemic. Once he had an opportunity to get regular exercise he worked out five days a week to get the weight off.
“Diabetes runs in my family,” he said. “My grandmother died from the disease and my uncle had both his legs amputated before he passed away from diabetes.”
Woods said he had been exercising and adhering to a strict Jewish kosher diet since 2002 in an effort to avoid the disease. But the pandemic led him to stress eating.
“The number of women who are diabetics here at Fluvanna Correctional Center has doubled from approximately 35 to about 70 during the pandemic,” Chanell Burnett wrote in an article for the Prison Journalism Project.
“Too many found solace in food, eating out of depression or even from sheer boredom. Food has become comfort for us. Perhaps this would not be so distressing if we were served healthier foods or if the commissary sold healthier foods,” wrote Burnett. “But we are given too much starch, processed meats and soy and not enough well-cooked vegetables or any vitamins and nutrient supplements.”
Richard Fernandez is a prisoner at SQ who has had diabetes for the past six years. He takes two pills each day and one injection of insulin in the morning.
“I attribute that to a mostly sedentary prison lifestyle and a poor diet. I’ve been in prison for 13 years and I’ve been eating bread, pancakes, waffles, and coffee cake. This is what they serve us. It’s all bad.”
According to a National Statistics on Diabetes study done in 2019, each year more than 80,000 people die from diabetes in the United States. Diabetes is number seven on the list of diseases that kill Americans, according to the study.
The prevalence of type 1 and 2 diabetes will likely increase by 54% to more than 54.9 million Americans between the year 2015 and 2030, according to the Center for Population Health Management.
In a study titled “Diabetes 2030: Insights from Yesterday, Today, and Future Trends,” researchers predict annual deaths from diabetes will climb by 38% to 385,000 deaths per year. These facts and figures came from a 2017 study conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers also predict that annual medical and societal costs related to diabetes will increase by 53% to more than $622 billion dollars by the year 2030.
COVID-19 and inactivity, along with race and ethnicity, high blood pressure, family history, and weight are all contributing factors to the rising diabetes epidemic, according to health professionals.
To protect yourself, eat a low-fat, low-calorie, high-fiber diet. Eat mostly fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Additionally, exercise regularly to keep your weight down.
“I don’t eat processed meats,” Woods said.” I only eat fish or a cheese alternative. I normally get one fruit and one vegetable per day with my kosher meal. I do have trouble sometimes with chips and sugary snacks like anybody. It’s all we can buy.”