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COVID-19 hits Latinos hard. It’s up to us to improve our overall health to keep it at bay

Latinos, like African Americans, suffer disproportionately from chronic conditions such as diabetes. That can be disastrous against the coronavirus.

A mural in Chicago’s Little Village neighhorhood, which has a large Hispanic population. Coronavirus cases are on the rise in the state’s Latino community.
Sun Times file

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A1C might sound like a celebrity nickname.

Actually, it’s a simple, important blood test that Latinos should know about. African Americans, too. I became intimately familiar with it 15 months ago.

A1C tells you your average blood sugar level over two or three months. Some doctors include the test in physical exams. It can tell if you are on the verge of developing diabetes or how well you are managing diabetes.

I bring this up because diabetics who come down with the coronavirus are more likely to suffer serious complications.

That should jar Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans and those of Mexican descent like me. Compared with non-Latino white Americans, they are afflicted disproportionately with diabetes.

Now, they’re getting hit hard with the coronavirus, too.

Latinos make up 17% of the state’s population but account for 25 percent of the state’s cases. Fifteen percent have died.

African Americans, who also are prone to underlying illnesses such as diabetes, also continue to suffer disproportionately from the coronavirus. They account for almost 34% of coronavirus deaths in Illinois though they make up only 14 percent of the state’s population.

Marina Del Rios, an emergency room doctor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who is part of the Illinois Latino COVID-19 Initiative, told me she has started seeing more Latinos fighting the coronavirus in the intensive care unit. Other doctors in Chicago have told her the same.

It’s no surprise. Many Latinos, like African Americans, work in the service sector in crowded places. Working from home to dodge the virus is an impossibility.

“Physical distancing is a privilege,” Del Rios noted.

Undocumented immigrants who have no labor protection are more likely to work while sick. “My impression from patients is that they’re working because they have to,” Del Rios said.

Multi-generational homes are common in African American and ethnic communities. Inevitably, some people bring the virus home and infect older, more vulnerable family members.

“We’re now just seeing transmission rates,” Del Rios said of the virus’ spread among Latinos.

Messaging also has been a problem because of language barriers for some. The Illinois Latino COVID-19 Initiative is working on spreading awareness. The state and city are taking actions to try to curb the virus’ spread. The county has a track record for charitable care for those without health care insurance.

We also must do our part. That means washing our hands often, avoiding crowds if possible and taking other steps that experts recommend to keep the disease at bay.

But we must also take steps to improve our overall health. That means watching our weight, exercising more (long walks will do for some) and eating better whenever possible.

It means eating less rice and more veggies. Fresh veggies are too expensive for some, but more affordable frozen veggies can do the trick. It means scaling back on tortillas, which are high on the glycemic index.

I speak from experience. For about a year, I did a lot of sitting at my job. I started drinking caffeinated, sugary soda for an extra boost in the afternoons. I stopped walking and instead caught a bus from the office to the train. My diet included potatoes and pizza. I gained 8 pounds.

And 15 months ago, on a routine blood draw at a physical exam, my A1C was flagged as “abnormal.” I was headed for Type 2 diabetes. I’m kind of lean and didn’t think diabetes applied to me even though it rages in many blood relatives and some have suffered painful deaths because of the disease.

I had to get my act together with diet and exercise. Some people need medication, too. Doctors such as Del Rios at UIC are concerned that patients with chronic illnesses aren’t going to see their doctors out of fears over the virus. They must keep in touch.

Diabetes and conditions such as obesity and high blood pressure aren’t limited to Latinos and African Americans.

Too many Americans are obese. With that, some also deal with high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.

It has created a perfect storm of complications for those fighting the coronavirus. In March, 89% of patients hospitalized with the virus had at least one underlying health condition, the CDC reported.

Those who can improve their diets and exercise routines must do so. That goes a long way against disease.

Marlen Garcia is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.