ASCO panel outlines cancer care challenges during COVID-19 pandemic


Lessons from the front lines

Another member of the presscast panel, Melissa Dillmon, MD, of the Harbin Clinic Cancer Center in Rome, Georgia, described the experience of community oncologists during the pandemic.

Her community, located in northeastern Georgia, experienced a COVID-19 outbreak in early March linked to services at two large churches. Community public health authorities issued a shelter-in-place order before the state government issued stay-at-home guidelines and shuttered all but essential business, some of which were allowed by state order to reopen as of April 24.

Dr. Dillmon’s center began screening patients for COVID-19 symptoms at the door, limited visitors or companions, instituted virtual visits and tumor boards, and set up a cancer treatment triage system that would allow essential surgeries to proceed and most infusions to continue, while delaying the start of chemotherapy when possible.

“We have encouraged patients to continue on treatment, especially if treatment is being given with curative intent, or if the cancer is responding well already to treatment,” she said.

The center, located in a community with a high prevalence of comorbidities and high incidence of lung cancer, has seen a sharp decline in colonoscopies, mammograms, and lung scans as patient shelter in place.

“We have great concerns about patients missing their screening lung scans, as this program has already proven to be finding earlier lung cancers that are curable,” Dr. Dillmon said.

A view from Washington state

Another panel member, Gary Lyman, MD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, described the response by the state of Washington, the initial epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.

Following identification of infections in hospitalized patients and at a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, “our response, which began in early March and progressed through the second and third week in March at the state level, was to restrict large gatherings; progressively, schools were closed; larger businesses closed; and, by March 23, a stay-at-home policy was implemented, and all nonessential businesses were closed,” Dr. Lyman said.

“We believe, based on what has happened since that time, that this has considerably flattened the curve,” he continued.

Lessons from the Washington experience include the need to plan for a long-term disruption or alteration of cancer care, expand COVID-19 testing to all patients coming into hospitals or major clinics, institute aggressive supportive care measures, prepare for subsequent waves of infection, collect and share data, and, for remote or rural areas, identify lifelines to needed resources, Dr. Lyman said.

ASCO resources

Also speaking at the presscast, Jonathan Marron, MD, of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, outlined ASCO’s guidance on allocation of scarce resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Richard L. Schilsky, MD, ASCO chief medical officer and executive vice president, outlined community-wide collaborations, data initiatives, and online resources for both clinicians and patients.

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