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Challenge 6: Why does COVID-19 affect people differently?

Learning Targets:

  • I can explain how inflammation is associated with COVID-19 and case severity.
  • I can discern the differences in case severity that are associated with preexisting conditions and demographics.


Why Is COVID-19 So Hard to Track?


Radiolab: Invisible Allies” - first 23 minutes

Read & Reflect:

Generally speaking, inflammation is a good thing. This is a reaction that your body has to injury, invasion by foreign cells or agents like bacteria or viruses or even toxins. When your body or a part of your body is inflamed there are several common physiological responses including swelling, redness, heat, and pain. Think about the last time you got a bug bite, the area immediately surrounding the bite swelled a bit and turned red, right? That’s inflammation! The reason this is a good thing is that inflammation increases blood flow.

  • Why do you think that increasing blood flow is helpful for a site of injury or invasion? What does the blood bring to the site?

Read & Evaluate:

However, there are times when inflammation is not a good thing. Periods of long-term (chronic) inflammation is associated with many serious conditions including heart disease, asthma, arthritis, autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s or Celiac Disease, and diabetes, to name a few. Inflammation that occurs for long periods of time can also affect the body’s ability to fight off infection. COVID-19 seems to be connected to inflammation in two ways. First, COVID-19 causes an inflammatory response in the body. Some individuals who contract COVID-19 have what is called a “cytokine storm,” which is an aggressive immune response that leads to even higher levels of inflammation. Second, as the Radiolab podcast discussed, people who have chronic inflammation seem to be affected more severely by COVID-19. The podcast also points out that there may be an association between vitamin D levels and COVID-19. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, made by the body or consumed, that is thought to bolster and temper the immune system.

  • What key observation played a role in the thought that vitamin D levels may be associated with COVID-19 outcome and lower vitamin D levels are associated with more severe cases of COVID-19?

  • If this association is true and vitamin D can help to prevent severe COVID-19, what is the hesitation to urging people to take vitamin D supplements? Why should we use caution with this line of thinking?


Design a study that you could do to further investigate vitamin D levels and COVID-19.

Reflect & Discuss:

Based on what you have listened to and read in this challenge, what groups of people seem to be more greatly affected by COVID-19?

Hypothesize & Investigate:

Do you have a hypothesis or two as to why people of color are more likely to be affected by COVID-19? Think about social or health factors that may be playing a role. Search for a few credible sources for evidence to support your ideas and report your findings.