PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As the Oregon Health Authority reported a spike in cases on Thursday, it is clear the community will continue to reel from COVID-19 impacts for a while longer — but new studies link the virus to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes which may pose lifelong health concerns for communities of color. 

Recent research suggests even mild cases of COVID-19 can raise the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. This newly discovered correlation poses a major health risk for Black residents, who continue to be disproportionately affected by both diseases.

While it is too early to draw a formal census on the connection, the preliminary research published in the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology Journal found that within one year of infection, those who caught COVID were at a 40% increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Although the findings show COVID-19 infection could exacerbate the threat of developing diabetes among all races, that prospect is even higher among populations of color which have faced ongoing racial health inequities that have left them less protected than their white counterparts.

On February 15, 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that while COVID-19 cases among Black people were relative to their share in their population share, their death rate was reportedly higher — and has been since October 2021.

As national data has shown Black Americans currently face elevated rates of developing Type 2 diabetes when compared to other ethnic groups, the pandemic-driven racial health inequities combined with new research create an echo chamber of health risks for the already vulnerable group. 

Dr. Angela Ford, Chief Programs Officer at the Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) told KOIN 6 News while she was not surprised to learn of the connection between COVID and Type 2 diabetes, she believes the unequal burden of COVID-19 may lead to even higher rates of Type 2 diabetes among Black Americans and further perpetuate racial health inequities.

“We know a lot about diabetes. We know a lot less about COVID,” She explained. “But we do know that the most vulnerable population to the virus is also vulnerable to diabetes, so it makes sense that there would be some connection post COVID.”

According to Dr. Ford, the healthcare gaps seen within the Black community are the result of long-standing systemic racism, which she says has continued to limit access to health education, information and optimal treatment options.

“These inequities are not new, even though the pandemic might have been the first time some have ever heard of them,” Dr. Ford said. “But there’s never been a time when racial health inequities did not exist.”

Although Type 2 diabetes is largely preventable, Dr. Ford told KOIN 6 News higher risks of obesity, food insecurity and a lack of access to healthy meal options have played a major role in the increased risk for the disease among Black residents.

To combat potential health threats, she recommends lawmakers at the state and local levels begin drafting policy changes that would address the root of these vast health disparities within communities of color. 

“All stakeholders have to come together to address these health inequities,” Dr. Ford stated. “There ought to be support for bills that increase spending to create programs which target food deserts, and food insecurity. Because many of these individuals do not have access to healthy foods, and some live in communities where healthy foods simply don’t exist.”

One of several key policy recommendations outlined within BWHI’s new 2022 Diabetes Policy Agenda to help combat the racial health inequity associated with the diabetes epidemic is a tax on sugary beverages.

“Because we know sweet beverages contribute to obesity, and can also spike up the blood glucose level in someone who has diabetes… our recommendation certainly is that if there’s taxation that’s going to make those beverages cost more, that could be a deterrent,” Dr. Ford explained. 

She told KOIN 6 News in addition to proposing policies to reduce the risk of diabetes, lawmakers should focus on raising vaccination rates within communities of color to combat the threat of unbalanced health risks. 

“Because black Americans were unfortunately disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and are also disproportionately impacted by diabetes, this will only add to the burden of the disease,” Dr. Ford said. “That’s why it’s especially important that we try to prevent Type 2 Diabetes.”

In the face of the recent findings, KOIN 6 News reached out to local lawmakers to see if any preventative policies, like those outlined in BWHI’s agenda, are currently on the table in Oregon. However, they did not provide a response at the time of this writing. 

As previously reported by KOIN 6 News and the New York Times, Oregon famously set aside $62 million for a COVID-19 relief fund to address racial health disparities and benefit Black individuals and business owners in 2020. However, much of that money became tied up after several lawsuits claimed the race-based funding was discriminatory.

Until comprehensive legislation can be passed to help address racial health gaps, Dr. Ford said she hopes healthcare providers, lawmakers and members of the community can begin to raise awareness on how to best prevent Type 2 diabetes. 

“A lot of folks really still don’t understand that diabetes is a disease that can be prevented,” Dr. Ford said. “These inequities are not new, diabetes is not new. So I would just ask and encourage everyone to continue to understand and take advantage of opportunities to prevent Type 2 Diabetes.”