What Patients with Cancer Need to Know About the Novel Coronavirus

Artist rendition of coronavirus

The respiratory virus COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, and has spread to more than 100 countries around the world, including the U.S. Rates are rapidly increasing in other European countries, and more recently in the U.S. Roswell Park has embarked on plans to limit COVID-19 spread among our patients, visitors, and employees.

Brahm Segal, MD, Chair of Internal Medicine and Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, spoke recently about what everyone should know about the COVID-19 virus, and what it means for cancer patients.

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The COVID-19 situation is evolving rapidly. To read the latest information on Roswell Park’s response and find additional resources, visit our Coronavirus (COVID-19) web page.

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How is this coronavirus different from the flu?

Many of us have probably been affected by coronaviruses, which cause the common cold. But some coronaviruses are more aggressive. This version, COVID-19, is much more aggressive than flu. It's more likely to cause severe illness, especially in older adults. The chance of becoming ill, needing hospitalization and dying from COVID-19 is massively higher than with more routine coronaviruses we’ve all lived with.

If we look at all cases of the virus, the mortality rate is in the 3% range, which is higher than what we see with flu.  The actual mortality rate might be closer to 1-2% when we consider milder cases that may not be diagnosed. By comparison, the mortality rate associated with the flu is about 0.1%. Unlike COVID-19, vaccines are made each year for seasonal flu, and antiviral drugs are available to treat the flu.

How does this coronavirus spread?

The main way that COVID-19 spreads is through droplets from a person who coughs or sneezes in close range to another person. If there is physical distance of six feet or more between people, the risk is lower.

Several U.S. states are affected by COVID-19, with the largest numbers in Washington, California, and New York. In New York, there has been a recent dramatic increase in New York City and some of the surrounding counties. Roswell Park will be a site for COVID-19 laboratory testing. We expect that with increased access to testing, we will be able to diagnose cases earlier and limit the spread of the virus.

Why do some people with COVID-19 have milder symptoms than others?

We have different immune systems and some of us have chronic conditions that can make COVID-19 infection worse. About 80% of people infected by COVID-19 will have a flu-like illness without other complications. Others will develop a more severe illness and may need hospitalization. The mortality rate is in the 1-3% range. Elderly people have the highest risk of death from COVID-19, while illness is likely to be mild in healthy children. This virus is different than what most people have been exposed to, which is likely why this infection causes more severe illness than other common coronaviruses.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough and shortness of breath; in the elderly and people with other chronic medical problems, including cancer, the virus is more likely to cause pneumonia and death.

What does this mean for Roswell Park patients?

Roswell Park is working to protect the health and safety of everyone in our community: patients, visitors, staff, volunteers and students. We are a major hospital focused on cancer care, and our patients are immuno-compromised and at higher risk for this new coronavirus and other respiratory viral infections. Certain cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants, can weaken our patients’ immune systems, placing them at risk.

Because of the severity of COVID-19, we have taken important precautions in caring for our patients. These include having our healthcare professionals and anyone caring for patients use special gowns, gloves and masks that we would use for battling other diseases, such as TB. We also have communicated the importance for all to practice frequent, thorough handwashing.

Other steps include:

  • Continued training reinforcement and practice scenarios for clinical staff
  • Restrictions on travel for employees, volunteers and students
  • Limiting the number of individuals on our campus through employee telecommuting and visitor restriction policies
  • Screening patients, visitors and employees regarding international travel or contact with international travelers, and regarding recent illnesses
  • Monitoring personal protective equipment (including masks, gowns and gloves) for proper use and distribution
  • Communicating visiting recommendations to our contractors 

If you have mild symptoms, call our nurse triage team at 716-845-2300 to find out what to do next. If you are coughing or have a fever and have access to a surgical mask (not an N95 mask), wear it when you go out to the hospital or a clinic appointment, to avoid infecting others.

If you have a cough or fever and access to a mask, put on a surgical mask on when going to the hospital or clinic appointment to avoid spreading the infection to anyone else.

With so many cases of seasonal flu, and not one case of coronavirus locally, is this reaction overblown at all?

It's not overblown. The response is just right in my view. Though we’ve seen no cases of COVID-19 in our region, we have to prepare for the virus spreading. Planning involves many factors, including limiting exposure of our employees and patients, early diagnosis of COVID-19, and ensuring Infection Control policies to limit spread within Roswell should we encounter patients with COVID-19.

What is the status of a COVID-19 vaccine?

It doesn't exist now, but the field has advanced rapidly.  We just learned about this virus in December. In January, the genome had been sequenced, and the virus was being cultured. The technology is so good now. Candidate vaccines are being developed, and testing is expected within the next few months. There is a very realistic expectation that there will be a vaccine available for widespread use in the next 1-1.5 years. In addition, there’s the potential to repurpose current antiviral drugs for use for COVID-19.

In the meantime, I recommend checking the CDC website, which is updated daily.