As a recent front-page Los Angeles Times report reminded us, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck America’s second-largest city, its homeless population was viewed as a “time bomb” about to go off. Estimated to be more than 41,000 individuals, beyond issues of shelter and food, many suffered from health problems that predispose them to severe illness. It was projected that they were at risk of succumbing in high numbers to the worst ravages of COVID-19.
Yet, to date, according to the Times’ Gale Holland, there has been little spread of the novel coronavirus in Los Angeles’ street encampments. “Of the more than 1,300 cases among homeless people in (entire) L.A. County, fatalities by mid-August stood at 31, a mortality rate comparable to or better than that of the overall population,” she writes. Throughout the state, as well as the nation, similar numbers related to the homeless are being recorded.
As experts look for explanations, it is believed that one reason for this outcome could be the environment where nearly three-quarters of LA’s homeless people live — outside. Quoting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Holland notes that “outside is safer than indoors because fresh air disperses droplets containing the virus and there’s more room to keep people apart.” Also referenced is a small-sample Japanese study released in April that found the risks of transmission in a closed space to be 19 times greater than out in the open.
As to the apparent resiliency of homeless people, Dr. Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at UCLA, says, “There is still much to learn to try to understand what truly impacts susceptibility.”
Does daily exposure to sunlight play a role? Sunlight spurs the body to make vitamin D, and a healthy vitamin D level is needed for optimal disease prevention. There is also a well-documented relationship between low vitamin D levels and poor health. According to the Times, researchers have linked deficiencies of vitamin D to more severe cases of COVID-19. At present, how it factors in relation to the resiliency of the homeless remains to be seen. As noted by the Times, homeless people in Boston were tested and shown to have the same vitamin deficiencies as other people.
The bigger question that has emerged is whether vitamin D can help prevent COVID-19. There are a lot of researchers who are exploring this subject.
Earlier this year, the University of Chicago launched a study to investigate a possible connection between vitamin D and COVID-19. Researchers looked at the medical records of people who had been tested for COVID-19 in Chicago between March 3 and April 10, measuring the relationship between vitamin D levels in the past year and positive tests.
“The people who were vitamin D deficient were dramatically more likely to have COVID than the people who weren’t vitamin D deficient,” David Meltzer, an internist and economist who headed the study, tells Abby Olena of the health research website The Scientist.
The best way to determine whether vitamin D can prevent COVID-19 is to perform randomized controlled trials, Meltzer emphasized. Such trials are something he and his colleagues are working on in multiple populations, including first responders. Until a more definitive answer is established, it is also strongly urged that people avoid megadosing with vitamin D. According to The Scientist, “Too much vitamin D can lead to an excess of calcium in the blood and, in severe cases, organ damage.” Interactions of vitamin D with other drugs people might be taking can also create harmful side effects. It is also important to remember that “natural” does not mean a supplement is risk-free.
Another critical question to ask is whether vitamin D in supplement form should be your first option. We should not rule out direct sunlight, where vitamin D is abundant.
“About 20 to 25 minutes of exposure is helpful,” Stephen Honig, director of the Osteoporosis Center at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City, tells the website Health. Even a small amount of sunlight during the day can help improve vitamin D levels.
“There is no supplement or herb that can prevent or cure coronavirus,” says Melissa Majumdar, a registered nurse and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, in a Healthline report. “Instead of taking additional supplements, focus on other aspects of supporting your immune system such as exercising, hydrating, getting enough sleep, and getting enough fruits and vegetables.”
There are benefits of nutrients from vitamin D-rich foods such as fatty fish or egg yolks that are not seen with supplements. You have probably heard this before. Yet a 2018 consumer survey conducted by the Council for Responsible Nutrition found 75% of U.S. individuals take dietary supplements, with vitamin D and calcium among the most popular types. A new survey conducted by ValuePenguin fielded in March 2020 found that, while three-quarters of Americans are concerned about their health, 55% of Americans confessed to getting less than seven hours of sleep per night. Another 66% say they are not eating enough helpings of fruit and vegetables in their diets, and 70% say they are not getting the recommended two-and-a-half hours of physical activity in a week. This is from a survey sample base proportioned to represent our overall population.
Being sedentary goes hand in hand with staying indoors. Staying indoors and not eating properly feeds vitamin deficiencies and preexisting conditions. Most people know that they should get moving. They understand the benefits of a healthy lifestyle but have lost motivation to take needed action. There is a barrier between intentions and behavior, and I am afraid no magic pill can save us from its consequences.