People infected with COVID-19 during the Omicron era face an increased risk of diabetes and related diseases, according to a study showing that long-term dangers of the virus have persisted since the strain began spreading.
Rates of newly diagnosed diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol were higher in the 90 days after COVID infection than the period before, according to a study of almost 24,000 patients during the period of Omicron’s dominance from researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and vaccination appeared to help reduce these risks.
Omicron has been seen as a milder version of COVID compared with earlier strains, leading to lower rates of hospitalization and death than Delta and the strain that first emerged from China in early 2020. Since Omicron began sweeping the world in late 2021, the vast majority of U.S. infections have been traced to the variant and its descendants, reinforcing the importance of watching for diabetes in people recovering from COVID.
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“Most people should be getting screened for diabetes at 35,” said Alan Kwan, a Cedars-Sinai cardiologist who helped write the report published Tuesday in JAMA Network Open. “And they should be getting screened every three years.”
First seen as mainly a respiratory illness, COVID has since shown that it harms some patients in a variety of ways that can last for years after infection. Diabetes, which occurs when the body loses the ability to closely regulate levels of sugar in the blood, can damage tissues in the heart, kidneys and eyes.
Through the Omicron era, new diabetes diagnoses were nearly three times as common among unvaccinated people after infection than during the pre-infection period. High blood pressure, cholesterol and elevated levels of other blood fats were almost twice as common after infection among the unvaccinated. Among vaccinated people who got COVID, the risk of diabetes remained about the same before and after the infection, while the risk for other diseases decreased.
The link between COVID and diabetes, though still poorly understood, has been noted since early in the pandemic. Research is needed to understand how these conditions develop, who’s at risk and the role of vaccination in prevention, Kwan said.
“As we move into the next phase of COVID, we still need to research the impact of multiple infections, multiple vaccinations, and how vaccinations mixed with infections affect risk,” he said.