David Staples: Dr. Deena Hinshaw had it mostly good with COVID, but one big failure stands out

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When Albertans needed compassionate, balanced, and thoughtful leadership during the COVID pandemic, Dr. Deena Hinshaw by. But that doesn’t mean Hinshaw got everything right.

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She failed miserably in one major aspect of public health, the same area in which nearly all public health officials across Canada failed, and completely yearned for a golden opportunity to make a lasting and positive impact on public health.

Like most medical officials, Hinshaw rarely mentioned how each of us could empower ourselves and build our individual and collective immune responses to COVID by improving our diets and exercising more.

Instead, Alberta’s different levels of government often made it difficult for healthy people to stay fit. Governments have closed recreation centers and gyms and banned sports competitions.

The city of Edmonton went so far as to ban people from using the river valley steps for exercise. The low point came when the police began to fine young people for playing shiny outdoor hockey.

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This failure has rarely been addressed by the medical establishment, with a few exceptions, most notably Dr. David L. Katzfounder and former director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center from 1998-2019 and past president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.

Katz detailed in a recent essay how public health officials failed to help people with cardiometabolic disease, a group of common but often preventable conditions, including heart attack, stroke and diabetes that are strongly linked to the worst COVID outcomes. “The underlying cause of the toll of COVID in the US and many other countries has been the past, neglected pandemic of cardiometabolic diseases. In turn, the root cause of all that cardiometabolic chaos is a diet and lifestyle that is at odds with the demands of human health.”

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In an interview, Katz said, “There was a huge opportunity here to address the pandemics, both acute and chronic, with lifestyle. But the topic was never brought up, not least in a significant way that had an opportunity to influence policy.”

A public health focus on diet and exercise would have had immediate benefits, Katz said, and would have reduced the number of COVID deaths. “You can start improving the immune health of people almost immediately with diet and exercise. There is a reaction to a single meal. There’s a response to a single walk, a response that we can measure, and then that benefit grows with every other good meal, every other bout of physical activity, so immediate and then budding benefit.

“It really would have made a difference. It was a huge missed opportunity, but it would also have addressed the underlying chronic disease pandemics, which frankly far outweigh COVID, and they are not temporary. They’ve been killing Canadians and Americans every year for as long as anyone can remember.”

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This particular failure of public health officials caused people to gain weight, reduce their physical activity and eat a poorer-quality diet during the pandemic, Katz said. “People were anxious, so they would sit at home on the couch and say, ‘Please pass the comfort food.’ And there was no counterbalance, there was no, ‘This is actually the best time imaginable to get healthy together.’”

I explained to Katz that one of the reasons for not bringing up diet and exercise was the fear of blaming and shaming obese people.

This consideration may have been at work, Katz said, but he noted that public health officials are trained in communication and could avoid such victimization accusations, sending a message like, “Look, we’re getting into this, many of us, with health issues that make us more vulnerable to bad outcomes from this virus. Doing as much as we can about that is a shared commitment and we are going to make it easier for you.”

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In a written response to Katz’s general criticism, Hinshaw noted, “It’s essential to avoid stigmatizing people based on their health status.” The government, she said, gave “as much continued access to physical activity as possible” and encouraged Albertans in terms of “eating healthy foods and incorporating regular exercise into their routine”.

No doubt this has been done in part, but not nearly enough. It’s not too late to partially fix this policy flaw.

COVID is here to stay. Experts tell us that we will all likely be hit repeatedly by the bug in the coming decades. How well we fight off the virus depends on our immune response, which can be boosted by a vaccine, but also greatly enhanced by eating and exercising better.

Public health officials have always known this. Isn’t it about time they started saying it all the time?


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