Smokers and people with chronic respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are at greater risk of experiencing the worst symptoms of the COVID-19 disease, health experts warn.
The disease — which has already killed more than 7,000 worldwide — causes inflammation in the lungs, which can lead to pneumonia. Some cases can get so bad that those infected need to be put on a ventilator so they can breathe.
“If someone has not yet quit smoking, this is a good reason to quit now,” said Joel Africk, president and chief executive of the Respiratory Health Association, a nonprofit based in Chicago, where an estimated 359,000 adults smoke. “People living with chronic respiratory illnesses are not more likely to get COVID-19, but they are more likely to suffer the most severe symptoms.”
About 264,000 people in Cook County are diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which disproportionately affects poor, African American communities.
Lesli Vipond, a program manager at the Respiratory Health Association who works on anti-smoking campaigns, said reaching out to those communities is a priority.
“We want people to be healthier, especially now with COVID-19, but we also know smoking is an addiction, and like any addiction it’s hard to get people to stop,” Vipond said.
About 333,000 adults and 65,000 children in Cook County have been diagnosed with asthma. Hospital discharge data reviewed by the Respiratory Health Association found 10 times as many black children in Chicago ended up in a hospital emergency department with an asthma attack than white children in 2015.
Matt Siemer, executive director of Mobile Care Chicago, works through those disparities daily. His organization administers free treatment for people with moderate to severe asthma across the city out of two health vans.
Siemer said most of his patients are taking the disease seriously.
“We’re asking our patients to be aware of their symptoms, be aware of their body, to wash their hands and take precautions,” he said.
For people with severe asthma, Siemer recommends they keep a 30-day supply of their medications just in case.
“If a worst-case scenario does arise and people have to be quarantined, we need to make sure that they have a way to refill their medications so they don’t run out,” he said.
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.