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Get boosted, because the pandemic isn’t over, until it’s over

Omicron variant
The COVID-19 omicron variant surge means cancer patients need to continue to fight COVID fatigue, remain vigilant and take steps to avoid infection.

Legendary New York Yankee Yogi Berra often came off as clueless and clumsy, while at the same time wise and prophetic. His catch phrases left us wondering how they can sound so stupid, but make total sense. “Nobody goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded,” he once said.

One of Berra’s most famous quotes can be applied today as the COVID-19 pandemic turns another page on the calendar: “It ain’t over, ‘til it’s over.”

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. In fact, riding the wave of the omicron variant, COVID-19 marches on. And while deaths have slowed, seemingly because the latest variant—omicron—is not as lethal as previous versions, infections have spiked nationwide.

What does this mean for cancer patients, their family members and caregivers? It means continuing to fight COVID fatigue, remaining vigilant and taking steps to avoid infection. In this article, we’ll look at what cancer patients and those around them should do to stay safe. This includes:

If you’ve put off cancer screening or treatment because of the pandemic, call us or chat online with a member of our team to schedule an appointment.

Vaccines and boosters

If you’re a cancer patient, caregiver, family member or someone who has regular contact with a cancer patient, you should have been vaccinated and had your booster shot by now, says Jeffrey Metts, MD, Chief of Staff at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Atlanta.

Cancer and/or its treatments often leave patients vulnerable to infection. Vaccines augment the immune systems of those whose immune cells have been depleted by the disease or treatments such as chemotherapy or a stem cell transplant.

 “Those who are vaccinated are not dying nearly as much as those who are unvaccinated,” Dr. Metts says. “Those are not vaccinated are the ones who are being hospitalized and often, unfortunately, succumbing to COVID.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved vaccine boosters for most American adults and some children. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that anyone who has a condition that may suppress the immune system should talk to his or her doctor about getting vaccinated or receiving an additional mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine injection.

This includes cancer patients who:

  • Are currently receiving treatment, especially chemotherapy or chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy
  • Received a stem cell transplant within the last two years
  • Received an organ transplant
  • Are taking immune-suppression drugs
  • Are taking high-dose steroids

Patients should consult with their doctor about the timing of their shot so they can get the most from it. They should also talk to their doctor about other vaccines, including those for the flu, shingles, tetanus and pneumonia.

Getting tested

It would seem logical that cancer patients and those around them get tested regularly for COVID-19. But Dr. Metts cautions that testing is not infallible and the results are fleeting.

“You may be negative now, but what happens when you go to the grocery store?” he says. “Even if you’ve tested negative, it doesn’t mean the test detected the infection on day one. It may be day two or three days after you’ve been infected that you test positive.”

While Dr. Metts doesn’t discourage patients from getting tested, those who have been gotten negative test results should not abandon the safety protocols that have been proven to reduce the risk of infection.

“The vaccine is the best tool we have, certainly to prevent death and hospitalization,” he says. “Tests are another tool. Masking is an important tool. And so is social distancing and washing hands. I always go back to the fundamentals.”

Staying the course on cancer care

Cancer rarely strays off its course. Like a runaway train, it keeps moving forward as the cancer cells continue to grow and potentially spread—whether you know you have it or not. That’s why it’s important for cancer patients, those at high risk and others in certain risk categories and age groups to stay the course on their screening or care as the pandemic continues.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, hospitals and health care systems have learned better how to manage the risks to patients and staff and have taken steps to keep people safe. CTCA®, for instance, has taken extraordinary safety measures to protect those who enter our hospitals and help patients maintain treatment schedules. Dr. Metts urges patients to stay in touch with their care team to address safety concerns and make necessary adjustments to their care plans.

“We always encourage our patients to have an open dialogue with their cancer care team,” he says. “They have a long-term relationship with our patients and are really able to walk through the nuances with each individual. The general rule of thumb is ‘communication is the key.’”

Cancer prevention and early intervention should also remain a priority for those in specific risk groups, Dr. Metts says.

  • Patients who have been previously treated for cancer should continue to get regular scans for a recurrence or development of a second cancer.
  • Those who are at elevated risk because of family history, an environmental exposure or other risk factor should follow consult a doctor about screening recommendations.
  • People who have reached certain ages should talk to their doctor about recommended screenings, including a colonoscopy, mammogram or PSA test.

Other steps to take to stay safe

The aggressive nature of the omicron variant has resulted in huge spikes in infections across the country. But “there is reason for optimism,” Dr. Metts says. Because COVID-19 has spread so quickly, cases of new infections are expected to drop dramatically as we approach spring and summer.

Cancer patients with compromised immunity still have a greater chance of getting infected if they’re exposed, so they need to be vigilant to reduce their risk

“Some people are in a position where their bodies are not forgiving,” Dr. Metts says. “They may have a compromised immune system and can’t afford to have that COVID-fatigue moment when they don’t wash their hands or wear a mask.”

 Caregivers and their family members should continue to take steps to reduce of exposure to COVID-19:

  • Wear a mask and encourage your family members and caregivers to wear them.
  • Avoid large crowds, when possible, and keep space between yourself and others.
  • Wash your hands frequently or use hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid people who are sick, and stay home if you’re sick.

Dr. Metts urges everyone to take precautions not just for themselves, but to protect others, as well.

“When someone is healthy, they may not have a lot of comorbidities, and they think they’re not the ones who are going to get sick or go to the hospital or die from COVID,” he says. “But it’s not about them or you. It’s about your aunt, your uncle, your neighbor and your community. You want to become a dead end for COVID. Not a spreader.”

If you’ve put off cancer screening or treatment because of the pandemic, call us or chat online with a member of our team to schedule an appointment.