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Study: McHenry, Will counties have higher-risk COVID-19 populations

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McHenry and Will counties have not been hit as hard by COVID-19 as some other parts of the Chicago area but might see greater devastation if an outbreak occurs because they have a higher rate of chronic health conditions that are exacerbated by the disease, according to a new study.

The report created by The New York Times and PolicyMap analyzes local health data and identifies counties with high rates of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, lung disease and heart disease – conditions that increase people's chances of becoming extremely ill if they are infected with the virus.

McHenry and Will counties are characterized as having "medium-low" rates of the underlying conditions. That contrasts with Cook, DuPage, Lake and Kane counties, which have "lower" rates of underlying disease.

"The report is pretty on target by saying these people are definitely at risk – not more infective, but once they get it, it's bad," said Dr. Daniel Sullivan, chief medical officer at Elmhurst Hospital. "The likelihood of mortality goes up substantially among these groups, and we've seen that in our own population here."

McHenry and Will counties both have populations whose obesity rate is at 32% or higher, the diabetes rate is 10% and the rate of high blood pressure is more than 29%.

In McHenry County, 7% of the population suffers from chronic lung disease and 4% from heart disease. In Will County, 6% of the population has lung disease and 3% has heart disease, according to the study.

People at higher risk should take steps to control chronic illnesses and stay disease-free, experts said.

"It is important for those who have a chronic disease to work with their personal physician to manage the disease and keep symptoms under control," said Meaghan Haak, McHenry County Department of Public Health's community health coordinator. "Everyone, but particularly the high-risk population, should follow preventive guidelines, such as washing your hands, practicing social distancing, wearing a mask and limiting your chance of exposure.

The study does not include age as a risk factor, but it notes that several of these conditions are more common in older people.

"If you're not suffering from these risks, the likelihood is less that you'll get significantly ill, but it's not zero," Sullivan said. "The other part is if you get it and carry it, are you giving it to others who are higher risk? It's not just about you."

The study showed the highest-risk populations are often in poorer and more rural areas of the country, mainly in the South and Appalachia.

Sullivan said outbreaks in more rural areas could take a big toll on medical resources in those communities.

"If you're in an area with low medical resources and you're high-risk, you've got some real trouble," Sullivan said. "Those are the people who need to isolate themselves more than anyone else."

The report also noted that half of all Americans have at least one of the chronic conditions that places them at risk of becoming severely symptomatic if infected.

The two counties are lower than elsewhere in the Chicago suburbs in COVID-19 cases per 1,000 people. McHenry County has 3.96, Will has 6.73, suburban Cook has 10.71, DuPage has 6.73, Kane has 9.09 and Lake has 9.54.

But authorities say they could be vulnerable if the number of infections increases because of the higher rate of underlying health problems.

The new study shows most Illinois counties are in the "medium-low" range for underlying health risks, but about a dozen are listed as "medium-high."

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