As the city of El Paso continues to see a decrease in COVID-19 cases, there is renewed attention towards diabetes and alcohol addiction within the local community. 

During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a large number of El Pasoans learned they had diabetes for the first time after being diagnosed with the coronavirus while others developed the disease after being infected, said Dr. Tamis Bright, chief of the endocrinology division at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso.

Dr. Tamis Bright

And with stay-at-home orders and limitations on physical interaction during the pandemic, alcohol addiction and hospitalizations due to alcohol abuse have increased, said Dr. Fabrizzio Delgado, an assistant psychiatry professor who specializes in addictions at TTUHSCEP. 

“The whole nation is bad, but we’re worse,” Bright said about the number of diabetes cases in El Paso.

The increase in diagnoses comes as El Paso’s case count is already above the state average.

According to the latest Healthy Paso Del Norte data from 2018, 15% of adult El Pasoans had diabetes, compared to the state’s 12% rate. And those who were 65 and older had the highest rate at 37%, compared to the state average of 27% according to the United Health Foundation.

In El Paso, Type 2 diabetes, when the body cannot respond to insulin normally, is more common than Type 1, which occurs when the body fails to produce insulin at all. 

Bright said the higher occurrences of the disease in El Paso is due to higher rates of obesity and a lack of a healthy diet.

“It’s a lifestyle and a diet problem,” she said.  

About 73% of the adult population in El Paso are obese, compared to the state’s 69% average, according to 2018 data by Healthy Paso Del Norte

“We did a lot of diabetes management with COVID,” Bright said. “It was a lot more in-patient diabetes cases than we usually would have.” 

But getting people screened and diagnosed is an ongoing issue, Bright said.

“I think there’s a lot of denial going on that if ‘I don’t look, then it’s not there’,” she said. “That doesn’t work with diabetes, because you’re just kind of shooting yourself in the foot if you’re not looking.” 

However, she also recognizes that for many El Pasoans the lack of health insurance and high costs of medication prevent them from getting screened. 

A rise in addictions

Addiction continues to be an issue for El Paso adults, and the problem only grew during the pandemic, said Dr. Fabrizzio Delgado.

Dr. Fabrizzio Delgado

“Alcohol has always been an issue but on top of that, the Hispanic community drinks a lot so that is a problem,” Delgado said. 

In 2018, 22% of El Pasoan adults binge drank compared to the state average of 17%. Among the adult population, people between the ages of 30-44 had the highest rates of drinking and was more prevalent in males. 

Delgado said the ongoing pandemic has created the “perfect storm” for those to drink, and caused them to drink even more. It’s also a growing problem for younger and older adults, he said. 

“We’re seeing so many patients coming into the hospital trying to stop their (use of) substances,” he said. “It’s a big issue right now.”

Delgado says that he is seeing alcohol addiction affecting those from as young as 18 to as old as 70. He believes that since people have been isolated at home there is less accountability, which causes more people to drink. But now that COVID-19 cases are decreasing, Delgado recommends social interaction to avoid isolation combined with ongoing communication about addictions. 

“Discussions should be geared towards being more tolerant and open to help,” he said. “If we don’t talk about it then we’re not addressing the problem.”

Cover photo: Nydia Orosco, a registered dietician, holds a child nutrition class at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso. (Tommie Morelos/TTUHSCEP)

Jewél Jackson covers higher education for El Paso Matters, through a partnership with Open Campus Media. She is a 2020 graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.