How is oncology adapting to COVID-19?


Schapira: Patients who need essential anticancer therapy should still get it, but attempts to deintensify therapy should continue—for example, holding or postponing treatment without harm (based on evidence, not opinion). This may be possible for patients considering hormonal therapies for breast or prostate cancer.

Patients who need radiation should discuss the timing with their radiation oncologist. In some cases, it may be possible to delay treatment without affecting outcomes, but these decisions should be made carefully. Alternatively, shorter courses of radiation may be appropriate.

Have you advised your own patients differently given the high risk to cancer patients?

Kerr: We have factored potential infection with the virus into discussions where the benefits of chemotherapy are very marginal. This could tip the balance toward the patient deciding not to pursue chemotherapy.

Dizon: The data from China are not entirely crystal-clear. While they noted that people with active cancer and those who had a history of cancer are at increased risk for more severe infections and worse outcomes, the Chinese cohort was small, and compared with people without cancer, it tended to be much older and to be smokers (former or current). Having said this, we are counseling everyone about the importance of social distancing, washing hands, and not touching your face.

Lewis: If I have a complete blood count with a differential that includes lymphocytes, I can advise my lymphopenic patients (who are particularly vulnerable to viral infection) to take special precautions regarding social distancing in their own families.

Have any of your hospitalized patients been affected by policy changes to prepare beds/departments for the expected increase in COVID-19–positive patients?

Weber: Not yet.

Dizon: No, not at the moment.

Have you been asked to assist with other services or COVID-19 task forces?

Dizon: I am keenly involved in the preparations and modifications to procedures, including staffing decisions in outpatient, movement to telehealth, and work-from-home policies.

Lewis: I am engaged in system-wide COVID-19 efforts around oncology.

Kerr: Perhaps oddest of all, I am learning with some of our junior doctors to care for ventilated patients. I still consider myself enough of a general physician that I would hope to be able to contribute to the truly sick, but I accept that I do need an appropriate refresher course.

Bishal Gyawali, MD, PhD, medical oncologist at Queen’s University Cancer Research Institute: Queen’s Hospital medical students are now volunteering to help with daycare, groceries, and other tasks for staff who are working in the hospital.

Are you experiencing any shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) at your center?

Miller: Some supplies are running short, though none are frankly out at this point. However, rationing and controls are in place to stretch the supplies as far as possible, including reusing some PPE.

Dizon: We are rationing face masks and N95 respirators, eye shields, and even surgical scrubs. We are talking about postponing elective surgery to save PPE but are not yet to that point. We’re asking that face masks be reused for at least 2 days, maybe longer. PPEs are one per day. Scrubs are kept secure.

Lewis: We are being very careful not to overuse PPE but currently have an adequate inventory. We have had to move gloves and masks to areas where they are not accessible to the general public, as otherwise they were being stolen (this started weeks ago).

Kerr: Our National Health System has an adequate supply of PPE equipment centrally, but there seems to be a problem with distribution, as some hospitals are reporting shortages.

Weber: Masks are in short supply, so they are being used for several days if not wet. We are short of plastic gowns and are using paper chemo gowns. Similar story at many places.

This article first appeared on Medscape.com.

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