What Cancer Patients, Survivors, and Caregivers Need to Know about the Coronavirus

You can’t seem to turn on the news right now without hearing about the coronavirus. It is headline news. We are now seeing cases of the virus spreading outside of China in places like Japan and the US. And there still many unanswered questions. We have also seen a proliferation of misinformation floating around the Internet and social media about the virus.

I asked my team at our Cancer Policy Institute to reach out to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get up-to-date information and advice from a trusted source.

Please see what the team sent me:

  • While cases of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) have begun to spread across the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that most people in the U.S. will have little immediate risk of exposure to the virus.
  • While there is not yet a COVID-19 vaccine, there are easy actions that all individuals can practice to help prevent the spread of the virus.
  • The Cancer Support Community (CSC) is monitoring the situation and will continue to provide evidence-based information for people impacted by cancer.

The CDC is closely monitoring an outbreak of respiratory illness caused by a novel (new) coronavirus (named COVID-19) that was first detected in Wuhan City, China and which continues to expand, including confirmed cases within the U.S.

For many cancer patients and survivors with compromised immune systems, the reporting on this public health emergency may likely be source of anxiety. However, the CDC reports that most people in the United States will have little immediate risk of exposure to this virus.

This is a rapidly evolving situation and information will be updated as it becomes available.

What is the coronavirus?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that range from the common cold to much more serious diseases. COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans.

What is happening in the United States?

  • Imported cases of COVID-19 in travelers have been detected in the U.S.
  • Person-to-person spread of COVID-19 was first reported among close contacts of returned travelers from Wuhan.
  • During the week of February 23, the CDC reported community spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 in California (in two places), Oregon and Washington. Community spread in Washington resulted in the first death in the United States from COVID-19, as well as the first reported case of COVID-19 in a health care worker, and the first potential outbreak in a long-term care facility.

At this time, there is no vaccine to protect against COVID-19 and no medications approved to treat it.

What has the U.S. government said about COVID-19?

On January 30, 2020, the WHO declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” On January 31, 2020, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar declared a public health emergency for the United States to aid the nation’s healthcare community in responding to the coronavirus. Also on January 31, President Trump signed a presidential “Proclamation on Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Persons who Pose a Risk of Transmitting 2019 Novel Coronavirus.”

As state and local authorities have primary jurisdiction for isolation and other public health orders within their respective jurisdictions, it is important to follow your local health authority’s guidance, which can be found on your state government website (which can be found by googling [the name of your state] and government).

How can you protect yourself and your loved ones from the coronavirus?

You can protect yourself from all respiratory infections and prevent the spread of disease by:

  • Avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an antiseptic hand gel.
  • Avoiding crowded areas and sick people.
  • Avoiding consumption of raw or undercooked animal products, as per good food safety practices.

“The most important thing for cancer patients to remember is that their risk of being exposed to the novel coronavirus is very low,” says MD Anderson infectious disease specialist Roy Chemaly, M.D. “So for now, the flu is still a much bigger concern in the U.S.”

For the general American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus at this time, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low. CDC has developed guidance to help in the risk assessment and management of people with potential exposures to COVID-19, with information about their current risk assessment below:

  • People in communities where ongoing community spread with the virus that causes COVID-19 has been reported are at elevated though still relatively low risk of exposure.
  • Healthcare workers caring for patients with COVID-19 are at elevated risk of exposure.
  • Close contacts of persons with COVID-19 also are at elevated risk of exposure.
  • Travelers returning from affected international locations where community spread is occurring also are at elevated risk of exposure.

Where can you get more information about the 2019 novel coronavirus?

The CDC has launched a helpful page that includes helpful resources. If you are traveling, the U.S. Department of State also has reputable, helpful information regarding travel advisories. The CDC also has a timely Travel Health Notices webpage for important travel notifications, which includes coronavirus advisories. Patient advocacy organizations and medical institutions have been addressing the ongoing issue including:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center has launched an informative piece regarding cancer patients and the coronavirus.
  • The American Lung Association has information on coronavirus aimed at patients.
  • Survivornet has an article aimed at helping cancer survivors understand the risks of coronavirus.

Editor’s Note: This blog has been updated on March 3, 2020


World Health Organization. Novel Coronavirus 2019. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Situation Summary. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/summary.html



Executive Chair of the Cancer Support Community

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