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Cancer care and COVID-19 in Seattle, the first U.S. epicenter


Outpatient Care

Because theirs is a referral center, many cancer patients come from out of town, and so there is concern about exposing nonlocal patients to COVID-19 as the virus spreads in the Seattle area. In addition, staffing shortages due to factors such as illness, exposure, and school closures are anticipated.

To address these problems, an initial priority was to establish a “multilayer” coverage system for the clinics in the event that practitioners had to be quarantined on short notice, the authors explain.

One decision was to reschedule all wellness visits for current patients or to use telemedicine. Capacity for that option expanded quickly, which was greatly helped by the recent decision by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to lift Medicare restrictions on the use of certain telemedicine services.

Another approach is to defer all consultations for second opinions for patients who were already undergoing treatment and to increase clinic hours of operations and capabilities for acute evaluations. This helps reserve emergency departments and hospital resources for patients who require higher-level care, the authors comment.

Treatment Decisions

Treatment decisions were more challenging to make, the authors note. One decision was that, despite the risk for COVID-19 for patients with solid tumors, adjuvant therapy with curative intent should proceed, they note. Similarly, patients with metastatic disease might lose the window of opportunity for treatment if it is delayed.

Treatment for aggressive hematologic malignancies is usually urgent, and stem cell transplant and cellular immunotherapies that provide curative treatments cannot be delayed in many cases.

Enrollment in clinical trials will most likely be limited to those trials that are most likely to benefit the patient.

Ueda noted that, because their patients come from all over the country, they are now conducting consultations for stem cell transplant by telephone so that nonlocal patients do not have to travel to Seattle. “If there is some way we can delay the treatment, we have taken that approach,” Ueda told Medscape Medical News. “If we can divert a patient to an area that is not as heavily affected, that’s another option we are taking.”

Although cancer surgery is not considered elective, surgical intervention needs to be prioritized, the authors comment. In the Seattle system, there is currently a 2-week ban on elective surgery in the healthcare system, owing to limited availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), staffing, and beds.

The oncology teams are currently reviewing treatment regimens to determine which treatments might lessen immunosuppression and which treatment options can be moved from the inpatient to the outpatient setting or can be delayed.

Inpatient Care

For hospitalized patients, several issues are being addressed. The priority is to prepare for an upcoming shortage of beds and resources because of the surge of patients with COVID-19 that is predicted. For both clinic and hospitalized patients, shortages of blood products have necessitated stricter adherence to thresholds for transfusion, and consideration is being given to lowering those thresholds.

Another important problem is the need to conserve PPE, which includes masks, gowns, gloves, and other products. The Seattle teams have implemented solutions such as favoring handwashing with soap and water over the use of hand gel for standard-precaution rooms, limiting the number of personnel entering patient rooms (so as to use less PPE), and reducing nursing procedures that require PPE, such as measuring urine output, unless they are necessary.

In addition, a no-visitor policy has been adopted in inpatient units to conserve PPE, with the exception of end-of-life situations.

The Future

The future trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic is uncertain, Ueda commented. She emphasized that “we must continue to prepare for its widespread impact. The unknown is what we are looking at. We are expecting it to evolve, and the number of infections cannot go down.”

Ueda and coauthors end their article on a positive note. “To many of us, this has become the health care challenge of our generation, one that modern cancer therapy has never had to face. We will prevail, and when the pandemic ends, we will all be proud of what we did for our patients and each other in this critical moment for humanity.”

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