Border residents with diabetes, hypertension losing lives to COVID-19

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El Paso launches education campaign urging at-risk groups to exercise, eat healthy and seek preventive care

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Many of El Paso’s 230 coronavirus-related fatalities could’ve been prevented, local officials say, if the victim had taken better care of his or her health prior to contracting the virus.

Almost all of the COVID-19 fatalities here involve comorbidities like diabetes, hypertension, heart, lung or kidney disease, El Paso City-County Health Authority Hector Ocaranza told county commissioners on Monday.

Those maladies, especially if the patient hasn’t been to the doctor or is not up-to-date on medication can lead to COVID-19 complications, hospitalization, admission to an intensive care unit and death.

“Of the underlying conditions at the time of death, we see high blood pressure and diabetes are the biggest ones,” Ocaranza said. “We need to control it, we need to make sure that they’re going to their primary care provider, that they have enough medication.”

According to county data, 57.83% of deceased COVID-19 patients had high blood pressure, 42.17% had diabetes and 14.78% had heart disease.

Not seeking timely medical help is also putting COVID-19 patients in mortal danger, he said. Some who go to hospitals already very sick hadn’t sought medical care to control underlying conditions for fear of catching the coronavirus at hospitals or clinics.

Others don’t go because they lack health insurance. According to 2019 census estimates, 23.8% of El Paso’s population remain uninsured.

“Here in El Paso, one of the realities is a large percentage of the population is uninsured. That’s a problem because if you’re uninsured your concern is that if you go get care you’re not going to provide for your family, especially in multigenerational households where only one person works,” Ocaranza said.

He urged the uninsured to put fears aside and take advantage of resources such as the county hospital, University Medical Center, where fees are charged on a sliding scale for those who cannot afford to pay more.

As far as the comorbidities, genetics may play a role in Type 2 diabetes, especially in El Paso’s majority Hispanic population, but that’s a condition that can be improved through lifestyle choices like exercise and healthy eating, Ocaranza said.

That’s where a new regional campaign called Live Active El Paso comes in. The web-based initiative encourages border residents to pledge better lifestyle choices that will help them stave off chronic conditions and survive a COVID-19 infection.

Preventing complications from COVID-19 by eating healthy, exercising

“We were talking about how we can help people take control since there is no cure, no vaccine,” said Deputy City Manager Tracey Jerome. “We can do this becoming more wellness-focused in our lives. We have a better chance of not contracting this virus to begin with and, if we do, we have a better chance of not having as many complications and surviving.”

The city is managing the campaign through a website called It will include resources like basic health information, exercise challenges, testimonials and links to partner organizations like the El Paso Diabetes Association, gyms, yoga and fitness centers, and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, among others.

“Everyone should lead by example. You need to set a good example for your kids and also for your elders,” she said. “You can take small steps, it doesn’t have to be a huge drastic change in one day. That’s generally not long-lasting, it’s about taking those steps incrementally, day by day to feel better and be well.”

Jerome is among top city officials who’ve publicly taken the Live Active El Paso pledge. She says she’s going for walks more often and encouraging neighbors to walk rather than drive to the post office.

“I see a lot more people riding their bikes, a lot more people walking, and that’s a good thing,” she said. “If you’re in a building and usually take the elevator, take even one flight of stairs. If you go to the grocery store, don’t park near the front door so you can walk more. You can walk outdoors without a mask unless you’re less than 6 feet away from people.”

El Paso City-County Health Authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza (photo taken from Facebook)

Ocaranza said it’s possible to improve nutrition and lose weight even without giving up Mexican food that’s a staple for many border families.

“It doesn’t mean that because we’re used to Mexican food we cannot eat healthy Mexican food,” he said. “We can even consume what we produce at home, especially out in the county where people grow their own vegetables or work in the fields where they can have access to healthy products.”

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