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New COVID-19 Study Examines Hypertension Complications

Dr. Heather Prendergast headshot.

The primary service areas of UI Health, the hospital and healthcare system of the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), include populations with rates of uncontrolled hypertension significantly higher than national averages.  Across the globe, about 60 percent of COVID-19 deaths have been observed in patients with high blood pressure.

Dr. Heather Prendergast, Executive Master of Healthcare Administration ’19, MS in Clinical and Translational Sciences ’14 and MPH in Health Policy and Administration ’07, associate dean for clinical affairs at the UIC College of Medicine and a UI Health emergency room physician, is tackling that issue with research examining racial, ethnic and gender disparities among hypertensive populations with COVID-19.

With a COVID-19 Rapid Response Pilot Grant from the UIC Center for Clinical and Translational Science, Prendergast seeks to explore the facets of hypertension that make individuals more susceptible to severe illness when infected.

“As a researcher but also as an African-American woman and as someone with family members personally affected by COVID, this is something I really wanted to understand,” Prendergast said. “We know COVID will be with us for a while, and we need to be better prepared to adequately fight against it.”

Coronaviruses are known to use a specific receptor to enter into targeted cells within the body.  Receptors vary genetically, including variations in expression based upon racial and ethnic identity.  Prendergast is studying the role of these variations and the connection to severity of illness and outcomes across race, ethnicity and gender among patients admitted through the UI Health Emergency Department.  Further, the use of certain blood pressure medications could potentially alter the association between hypertension and severe illness.

Individuals admitted to UI Health’s emergency room who are positive for COVID-19 and have a history of hypertension are asked to participate in the study.  Researchers review their medical records, examine their receptor profile and take blood samples to search for patterns and correlations.

Prendergast notes a class of  anti-hypertensive medications known as ACE inhibitors, used to treat high blood pressure, is associated with higher rates of intolerant reactions among Black patients.  She says this is another area for the research to explore, to identify certain complements of receptors that might point to differing treatments for COVID-19.

Discharged patients will use a bio patch for 30 days to monitor health and symptoms.  About 20 percent of infected patients with hypertension experience complications within 30 days, and the monitoring device allows better evaluation of patients outside of a hospital.

We’re almost 6-7 months into this [at the time of this interview], and the sad reality is that if you look at the numbers, minorities still account for the greatest amount of morbidity. So even as numbers declined in terms of patients requiring hospitalizations, you still have that significant disparity.

Dr. Heather Prendergast  |  EMHA '19, MS '14, MPH '07

Prendergast cautions that while the study includes predominately Black and Latinx patients with hypertension based upon the demographics of the primary service area for the health center, it is key for the public to understand neither COVID-19 nor hypertension are racially or ethnically-defined diseases.  She points out that early data from Wuhan, China also identified significant variations in infection outcomes among people with hypertension.

“I always try to stress that COVID does not discriminate, that every one of us can be affected,” Prendergast said. “Hypertension is not isolated to one ethnic group, and because we know COVID utilizes that same receptor to enter a cell, anyone with hypertension can be more susceptible to severe illness.”

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