A High B.M.I. Can Get You Vaccinated Earlier, Junk Science or Not

A High B.M.I. Can Get You Vaccinated Earlier, Junk Science or Not

March 5, 2021

A body mass index, or B.M.I., that indicates a risk for obesity can qualify someone for the Covid-19 vaccine, even if the measurement is outdated.


By Sandra E. Garcia

Rebecca O’Neal didn’t believe she qualified for a Covid-19 vaccine. She had not realized that her turn had come. Last week, when she scrolled through the eligibility requirements for the state of New York, she noticed body mass index on the list.

Body mass index, or B.M.I., is technically a measure of obesity. The quantifier was drawn up in the 1930s by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to assess risk. Since a B.M.I. is a formula that does not consider several important factors like where the body fat is or if any vital organs are surrounded by fat, experts say to take the indicator with a grain of salt. But even so, a B.M.I. that indicates obesity has been a source of agitation for people who believe their doctors have used it to discriminate against them because of their weight.

Ms. O’Neal, a 34-year-old comedian and writer in Brooklyn, didn’t worry about that in the moment. She calculated her B.M.I. (it’s essentially your weight compared to your height), found that she met this technical threshold for obesity, and booked a vaccine appointment for the same day. She received the first dose later that afternoon.

“I didn’t know that my B.M.I. was 30,” Ms. O’Neal said in a phone interview. “I cracked a lot of jokes about it on Twitter, but it was a relief that I was eligible at all.”

Ms. O’Neal is one of millions of Americans, in states like New York, Utah and Texas, who are qualified to be vaccinated based on their B.M.I. While obesity has been linked to more severe cases of Covid-19, of the 500,000 Americans who have died from the coronavirus, 17,770 were overweight and had obesity listed as a contributing factor in their death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Relying on a B.M.I. to judge one’s risk of serious health conditions is complicated. Many healthy people still fall in the “overweight” category based on their body proportions, with no distinction made between bone density, muscle mass and body fat.

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