Parishes that are most affected by diabetes may show where Louisiana’s most vulnerable citizens to COVID-19 are.
Data from the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) showed that diabetes is the most common underlying condition in COVID-19-related deaths, and that the state’s smallest parishes had the highest rates of it.
According to the Center for Disease Control, Louisiana is in a group of southern states that report the highest rates of diabetes in the country, along with Texas and Mississippi. As a whole, the state consistently has a greater proportion of diabetics than the national average of 9.6%. In addition, of the 20 parishes with the highest rates, 18 of them are relatively small, having fewer than 50,000 citizens.
Who is afflicted by diabetes is a more pressing issue than ever, with COVID-19 continuing to spread quickly. The disease has shown unprecedented growth in Louisiana, and has already infected more than 28,000 people. When the report was released in March 2020, 41% of people that died from COVID-19 complications also had diabetes. In comparison, the second greatest underlying cause was obesity at 25%.
As of May 2020, COVID-19 is spreading mostly in densely populated parishes, like East Baton Rouge and Orleans, sparing many of the small parishes with high diabetes rates. Stay-at-home restrictions enacted by Gov. John Bel Edwards provides part of a safety net for these vulnerable areas, but there is no easy solution to the disproportionate amount of diabetes diagnoses in the state.
In 2017 (the most recent data available), East Feliciana reported the densest population of diabetics in their parish at 17.2%. The smallest parish in Louisiana, Tensas Parish, was second place with a rate that was 73% more than the national average.
Dana Mixon, a medical coding consultant and licensed nurse, said that small parish culture accounts, in big part, for the heightened rates. Especially in southern states like Louisiana, the food culture is full of high-caloric, unhealthy foods. Well-known to any Louisiana resident are the boudin links, pecan pies and fried chickens featured in most Cajun and Creole recipe books.
“We all grow up to cook and eat like our moms did, and here that often means a lot of rice and gravy,” Mixon said.
Still, Lafayette parish, a larger parish known for its Cajun cuisine, has the second lowest diabetes rate in the state. This is because the relationship between population size and diabetes is often negative; the greater the population, the lower the rate of diabetes.
Larger parishes such as Lafayette and St. Tammany reported lower rates of diabetes than those with smaller populations. St. Tammany is at the bottom of the list, with only 9.6% of their citizens having it.
In the most diabetic parish, East Feliciana, many towns are small and largely populated by retired people, according to Mixon. Age alone makes people more vulnerable to diabetes, as well as poor eating habits accrued by a “lifetime of unhealthy foods,” she said. Adding in the often less active lifestyle of the elderly, and smaller parishes appear to be extremely vulnerable to the disease and COVID-19.