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Politics

Fact Check: Billboard Falsely Claims Cooper Doesn't Consider Type 1 Diabetes Underlying Condition

Roy Cooper and Mandy Cohen
North Carolina Department of Public Safety
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Gov. Roy Cooper watches as Health Secretary Mandy Cohen speaks during a press conference in an undated file photo.

A billboard in Johnston County near Raleigh criticizes North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper over Type 1 diabetes. It says the governor “does not consider Type 1 diabetes an underlying health issue.”

WRAL’s Paul Specht joins us to help separate fact from fiction.

Marshall Terry: First, Paul, who's behind this billboard?

Paul Specht: We don't know. We reached out to the billboard company, InterState Outdoor, and they said that it was put up by and paid for by an anonymous buyer. So, we're left sort of wondering who exactly is behind it. We don't know.

Terry: Well, what exactly is the billboard referencing there when it says Cooper doesn't consider Type 1 diabetes an underlying health issue? Is that in relation to COVID-19?

Specht: We believe it is, but it's not entirely clear. There was no disclaimer on this billboard, nothing like you see on TV ads, like "paid for by the so-and-so committee" or whatever. There is nothing like that. It doesn't have any of that small lettering at the bottom of it. So, we're left assuming that it's related to the COVID vaccine rollout just because that's sort of the most pertinent issue here in North Carolina.

Terry: And before we go any further, just as a quick reminder, what's the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes?

Specht: Personally, I don't know much about it, but Johns Hopkins says that Type 1 is where someone's immune system attacks and destroys the pancreas, and so then the pancreas does not produce insulin, which people need. So, that's Type 1. With Type 2, they can produce insulin, but the body becomes resistant to its effects, so it's not enough insulin. That's Type 2.

Terry: Now, again, the billboard refers to Type 1 diabetes. Is it true what the billboard says?

Specht: It's not. And again, we're working off the premise here that this is related to the vaccine rollout. And there's sort of a controversy here that we didn't know about until we started reporting it. The (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), known as the CDC, they consider Type 1 diabetes and Type 2 diabetes to be two different levels of risk for COVID-19. They rank all these underlying conditions is how at-risk they might put someone if they were to contract coronavirus.

And the CDC believes people who have Type 2 diabetes are at risk for complications from COVID. Meanwhile, they think that people with Type 1 might be at risk for complications from COVID. And that small distinction between something that does put you at high risk and something that might put you at high risk has led multiple states to separate diabetics into different vaccine-rollout groups.

Terry: What about in North Carolina?

Specht: In North Carolina, the (state Department of Health and Human Services) has actually grouped Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes together. And so, there are five phases for the vaccine rollout, and the fifth group is just the general population. That's when everyone will be eligible for vaccines. People with underlying health issues like diabetes — Type 1 or Type 2 — are in Group 4, meaning they are eligible to receive the vaccine before the rest of the population.

And so, we spoke to advocacy groups for Type 1 diabetes. This is what they want to see across the country. They want people with Type 2 and Type 1, to be prioritized above healthy people. And of course, let's take a moment and say this does not take into consideration people's jobs, whether or not they work or live in a nursing home, senior care facility, hospitals, school. You know, we're not taking into consideration their jobs or any other conditions that might put them higher up on the vaccine rollout.

Terry: So, do you have any idea what the person or group behind this billboard meant by what the billboard says?

Specht: Because we don't know who put it up, we're not exactly sure. But when we started researching this fact check, we discovered that as recently as two weeks ago, the health department on its website had the CDC list of at-risk people. In other words, they didn't list their groupings of Type 1 and Type 2 together. They only mentioned Type 2 as being at risk. So, if you were just an average person and you were to go to the health department website and go under "frequently asked questions," you would have only seen mention to Type 2 diabetes as an underlying health issue.

So, it's possible that whoever put up this billboard saw the outdated website page and reacted to that. As of today, the website has been updated. The health department told me they always intended to group diabetics together and that whatever appeared on their website was a mistake. They are trying to follow CDC guidelines and just overlooked the fact that the CDC does not group Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes together. But they do.

Terry: So, how did you write this claim?

Specht: We rated this claim false. It's sort of a vague statement, but it's something that we can check at its core. It says, "Gov. Cooper does not consider Type 1 diabetes to be an underlying health issue." Well, his health department does group Type 1 diabetes a group ahead of the general population in the vaccine rollout. So, at the very least, he does consider it to be an underlying condition. And so that meets our criteria for false.

These fact checks are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition. Do you want to know more about politics in North Carolina? Sign up here to have WFAE's weekly Inside Politics newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.