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Dr Neil Bhagwandass

Almost half of Trinidad and Tobago’s population could be at big risk for contracting COVID-19.

This is because half of the population has diabetes and hypertension and these people and those in 10 other categories—including the elderly—are at high risk for the virus and must strictly practice social distancing and other measures.

Figures on diabetes and hypertension levels and other categories of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDS) were given at yesterday’s daily media briefing by Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh and Dr Neil Bhagwandass (nephrologist/acting head of medicine at San Fernando General Hospital). Both warned about the impact and increased COVID risk for people with NCDs. Bhagwandass listed 12 categories of people at high risk, noting there are many people in the various categories in T&T.

“They’re at high risk for ravages of COVID-19. Social mitigation practices, including isolation, distancing et cetera, must be stressed to prevent severe outbreaks among the NCD population. The virus is more dangerous to such people and it’s particularly important for the elderly for instance to isolate themselves. Stay at home,” Bhagwandass said.

He said hypertension, which is very common among the population, is cited as a major risk factor for complications if COVID-19 arises.

Diabetes, which compromises the immune system, is also in a category for high risk of complications with the virus and he said any stress on diabetic systems will push a person’s diabetes out of control. Diabetics must ensure the use of medications to prevent elevated sugar levels and monitor blood sugar every four hours, also contacting doctors, he said.

Deyalsingh said ministry estimates are that 0.5 per cent of the population—266,000 people —have diabetes. He said that was the known figure, “but this is an underestimation as many have it and don’t know.”

Known estimates for hypertension are that 23.6 per cent of the population—341,000—have that disease.

Deaths attributed to diabetes in T&T are 14 per cent, those for cardio-vascular issues10 per cent and those due to heart conditions are 25 per cent, he explained. Cancer-related deaths are at 13 per cent.

Former health minister Dr Fuad Khan had launched a drive to get healthy and reduce NCDS. Deyalsingh said the Patrick Manning administration had also signed conventions on NCDS and the current Government, since 2015, had been sounding the alarm also. He said the banning of soft drinks in schools resulted in a 25 per cent reduction in consumption at schools.

“Along with other initiatives, we noticed last year a 1.5 per cent to 2 per cent drop in admissions to Accident and Emergency units regarding uncontrolled diabetes and hypertension. In terms of a percentage of almost 500,000 (patients) it’s a large number,” Deyalsingh said.

Deyalsingh added that much of the problem concerns food consumed and cultural issues. Changing the situation depends on how behaviours are adjusted including the “… Relationship people’s hands have with their mouths.”

Bhagwandass said lifestyle changes are necessary for diabetics and hypertension patients. This includes diet, exercise, avoiding alcohol and illicit drugs. He said it was very important to make time for daily 30-minute walks which help transform conditions.

Deyalsingh said all “step-down” facilities where COVID patients are recuperating have acreage for walking.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram meanwhile said they weren’t encouraging use of air conditioning at COVID facilities since it’s been seen with patients who have respiratory conditions and tuberculosis, that fresh air and sunlight contributes to the recovery speed. Bhagwandass acknowledged the mental anguish that staying in could cause but encouraged people to exercise in their yard, do aerobics or dance.

“Music will make a big difference in how people feel generally in these times,” he said.

Parasram said the fact that there hadn’t been too new cases for several days led to complacency on the part of some, but it’s too early for that. He noted Japan and other countries which initially controlled numbers are experiencing large second waves as measures were relaxed.

“We’re simply asking all to abide by regulations as long as you can—stay home with or without regulations,” he said.