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CLEVELAND (WJW) – It’s now established science — obesity and COVID-19 is a deadly combination. 

“Risk factors are huge during this pandemic. You know, I don’t believe people understand that and I think that they forget weight is a risk factor,” said Elizabeth Zehe, a Cleveland Clinic employee.

The CDC says it’s a risk factor for more than 40% of American adults, It’s a category Zehe fell into ten years ago when she went to see a specialist. 

“He looked at me and he said ‘I hate to tell you this, but you’re never going to lose any weight with the amount of insulin you’re on,” said Zehe.

The mother of three underwent gastric bypass surgery in October of 2011, motivated to lose the weight by her grandson. 

“He was probably about a year and a half or so and I said, ‘you know what, I want to be here to see him grow up,'” she said.

A decade later, Elizabeth contracted COVID, but she credits her weight loss for keeping her out of the hospital. 

“When you’re heavier, it’s hard to move in bed, so the fact I was able to get up and move a little bit each day and get myself out of bed, that alone, I believe, prevented me from getting pneumonia or any lung issues because I moved around,” Zehe said.

On Wednesday, the Cleveland Clinic published a study that found those who lost weight through bariatric — or weight-loss surgeries — had a 60% lower risk of developing severe complications from COVID.

“We had near 5,000 patients with obesity who had bariatric surgery at the Cleveland Clinic between 2004 and 2017 and we matched them, carefully matched them with over 15,000 patients with obesity who receive usual care,” said Dr. Ali Aminian, lead author of the study and director of Cleveland Clinic’s Bariatric & Metabolic Institute.

Numerous studies have established obesity is a major risk factor for severe COVID. As it weakens the immune system, it creates a chronic inflammatory state and increases risk for cardiovascular disease, blood clots and lung conditions.

“The findings of this study clearly show that if we can help patients to lose weight, we can reverse many health consequences of obesity, specifically in the context of COVID-19. I hope the finding of this study can increase awareness of the importance of obesity for the patients, healthcare providers and policymakers,” said Aminian.

While Elizabeth is glad she had a mild to moderate case where she could recuperate at home, other loved ones who are overweight, like her husband, had to spend some time in the ICU.

“It’s one thing that you can control, or one thing that you can get help for that would remove one risk factor from you,” she said.

The study is ongoing and doctors will be looking at the effects on the same patients in March of 2022.