Even if a COVID-19 patient experiences only mild symptoms and doesn’t end up in the hospital, they can still face long-term symptoms. Doctors have warned specifically about long-term neurological issues even for those who didn’t experience serious illness.
But now, doctors say more people are being diagnosed with diabetes after contracting COVID-19.
“Diabetes has been growing rapidly over the last decade,” said Dr. Robert Gabbay, the chief scientific and medical officer at the American Diabetes Association (ADA). “The last thing we need is another reason to increase the number of people with diabetes.”
The ADA thinks about 14% of hospitalized patients are developing newly diagnosed diabetes. Some of those 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 attacks cells that make insulin.
Humans are only born with a certain amount of those insulin-producing cells, called beta cells. Once a person is born, the body does not produce any more beta cells, and if a certain number of those 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 that studying the issue.
“We know that people who are in the hospital with severe illness or severe infections oftentimes develop high blood sugar levels, but what we’ve seen, COVID-19 is well beyond that,” El Muayed said.
In fact, doctors all over the world have developed a registry to track the findings in an attempt to figure out exactly what may be contributing to the rise in Type 1 and 2 diabetes cases in COVID-19 survivors.
They are looking at how the virus attacks beta cells and if COVID-19 causes the body’s immune system to attack those cells. Doctors are also investigating if genetics play a role.
“If we can pinpoint a few genetic markers that may predict the risk for developing diabetes after or during COVID-19, it may also lead to certain interventions which can prevent that,” El Muayed said.
Northwestern Medicine’s Comprehensive COVID-19 Center has planned several more studies on the issue thanks to funding through government grants.
For now, doctors say vaccinations are their best prevention tool in stemming the rising cases of diabetes.