Even if a COVID-19 patient has mild symptoms and does not end up in the hospital, long-term symptoms can still occur. Doctors have specifically warned of long-term neurological problems, even for those who have not had a serious illness.
But now doctors say more people will be diagnosed with diabetes after contracting COVID-19.
“Diabetes has grown rapidly over the past decade,” said Dr. Robert Gabbay, scientific and medical director of the American Diabetes Association (ADA). “The last thing we need is one more reason to increase the number of people with diabetes.”
The ADA estimates that approximately 14% of hospital patients will develop newly diagnosed diabetes. Some of these new cases may include patients who didn’t know they had diabetes before contracting COVID-19, but the ADA is also learning that COVID-19 is attacking cells that produce insulin.
People are born with only a certain amount of these insulin-producing cells called beta cells. Once a person is born, the body stops producing beta cells. When a certain number of these cells are destroyed, a person develops diabetes.
Dr. Malek El Muayed is part of a team of endocrinologists at Northwestern Medicine’s Comprehensive COVID-19 Center working on this issue.
“We know that people who are hospitalized with serious illnesses or infections often develop high blood sugar levels, but what we’ve seen is COVID-19 way beyond that,” El Muayed said.
In fact, doctors around the world have developed a registry to track the results and find out what exactly may be contributing to the rise in type 1 and type 2 diabetes cases in COVID-19 survivors.
They study how the virus attacks beta cells and whether COVID-19 causes the body’s immune system to attack these cells. Doctors are also investigating whether genetics play a role.
“If we can identify some genetic markers that can predict the risk of developing diabetes after or during COVID-19, it can also lead to certain interventions that can prevent it,” El Muayed said.
Northwestern Medicine’s Comprehensive COVID-19 Center has several more studies planned on the subject thanks to funding from government grants.
Currently, doctors say that vaccinations are their best preventive tool to contain the increasing cases of diabetes.