Maintaining cancer care in the face of COVID-19


Medical oncologist Anne Chiang, MD, PhD, is scrambling to maintain cancer care in New Haven, Connecticut, while COVID-19 advances unrelentingly. As deputy chief medical officer of the Smilow Cancer Network, the largest cancer care delivery system in Connecticut and Rhode Island, she has no illusions about dodging what’s unfolding just 2 hours down the road in New York City.

“They’re trying their best to continue active cancer treatment but it’s getting harder,” she says of her colleagues in the thick of the pandemic. “We have to be prepared for it here.”

In anticipation of what’s coming, her team has just emptied the top three floors of the Smilow Cancer Hospital, moving 60 patients by ambulance and other medical transport to a different hospital nearby.

The move frees the Smilow Cancer hospital’s negative-pressure wards for the anticipated wave of COVID-19 patients. It will keep the virus sealed off from the rest of the hospital. But in other locations it’s harder to shield patients with cancer from the infection.

Around the state, Smilow Cancer Network’s affiliated hospitals are already treating a growing number of COVID-19 patients, especially at Greenwich Hospital, right on the border with New York state.

To protect patients with cancer, who are among the most vulnerable to the virus, oncologists are embracing telemedicine to allow most patients to stay home.

“We’re really concentrating on decreasing the risk to these patients, with a widespread massive-scale conversion to telehealth,” said Chiang. “This is something that, in the space of about a week, has transformed the care of our patients — it’s a really amazing transformation.”

If anything good comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be this global adoption of virtual healthcare.

Across the US border in Canada, the medical director of Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre is directing a similar transformation.

“We have converted probably about 70% to 80% of our clinic visits to virtual visits,” says radiation oncologist Mary Gospodarowicz, MD.

“We have three priorities: number one, to keep our patients safe; number two, to keep our staff safe, because if staff are sick we won’t be treating anybody; and number three, to treat as many patients with cancer as possible.”

Gospodarowicz woke up last week to a local headline about a woman whose mastectomy had been canceled “because of the coronavirus.” The story exposed the many layers of the COVID-19 crisis. “A lot of hospitals have canceled elective surgeries,” she acknowledged. “For patients who have treatment or surgery deferred, we have a database and we’ll make sure we look after those patients eventually. We have a priority system, so low-risk prostate cancer, very low-risk breast cancer patients are waiting. All the urgent head and neck, breast, and other higher priority surgeries are still being done, but it just depends how it goes. The situation changes every day.”

It’s similar in Los Angeles, at the University of Southern California, says Elizabeth David, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon with Keck Medicine.

“For thoracic, we just had a conference call with about 30 surgeons around the country going through really nitty-gritty specifics to help with our decision making about what could wait without detriment to the patient – hopefully – and what should be done now,” she told Medscape Medical News.

“There are some hospitals where they are not doing anything but life and death emergency operations, whereas we are still doing our emergent cancer operations in our institution, but we all know – and patients know – that could change from one day to the next. They may think they’re having surgery tomorrow but may get a call saying we can’t do it,” David said.

Many of David’s patients have non–small cell lung cancer, putting them at particular risk with a pulmonary infection like COVID-19. For now, she says delivery of postsurgical chemotherapy and radiotherapy has not been impacted in her area, but her videoconference discussions with patients are much longer – and harder – these days.

“I’ve been in practice a while now and I’ve had numerous conversations with patients this week that I never trained for, and I’ve never known anyone else who has. It’s really hard as a provider to know what to say,” she said.

In cardiothoracic surgery, David said guidance on clinical decision making is coming from the American College of Surgeons, Society of Thoracic Surgery, and American Association of Thoracic Surgeons. Yet, she says each patient is being assessed – and reassessed – individually.

“You have to balance the risk of delaying the intervention with supply issues, hospital exposure issues, the danger to the patient of being in the hospital environment – there’s just so many factors. We’re spending so much time talking through cases, and a lot of times we’re talking about cases we already talked about, but we’re just making sure that based on today’s numbers we should still be moving forward,” she commented.

In Connecticut, Chiang said treatment decisions are also mostly on a case-by-case basis at the moment, although more standardized guidelines are being worked out.

“Our disease teams have been really proactive in terms of offering alternative solutions to patients, creative ways to basically keep them out of the hospital and also reduce the immunosuppressive regimens that we give them,” she said.

Examples include offering endocrine therapy to patients who can’t get breast cancer surgery, or offering alternative drug regimens and dosing schedules. “At this point we haven’t needed to ration actual treatment – patients are continuing to get active therapy if that’s appropriate – it’s more about how can we protect them,” she said. “It’s a complex puzzle of moving pieces.”

In Toronto, Gospodarowicz says newly published medical and radiation oncology guidelines from France are the backbone of her hospital’s policy discussions about treating cancer and protecting patients from COVID-19.

While patients’ concerns are understandable, she says even in the current hot spots of infection, it’s encouraging to know that cancer patients are not being forgotten.

“I recently had email communication with a radiation oncologist in Brescia, one of the worst-affected areas in Italy, and he told me the radiotherapy department has been 60% to 70% capacity, so they still treat 70% these patients, just taking precautions and separating the COVID-positive and negative ones. When we read the stats it looks horrible, but life still goes on and people are still being treated,” she said.

Although telemedicine offers meaningful solutions to the COVID-19 crisis in North America, it may not be possible in other parts of the world.

Web consultations were only just approved in Brazil this week. “We are still discussing how to make it official and reimbursed,” says Rachel Riechelmann, MD, head of clinical oncology at AC Camargo Cancer Center in São Paulo.

To minimize infection risk for patients, Riechelmann says her hospital is doing the following: postponing surgeries in cases where there is good evidence of neoadjuvant treatment, such as total neoadjuvant therapy for rectal cancer; avoiding adjuvant chemo for stage 2 colon cancer; moving to hypofractionated radiotherapy if possible; adopting watchful waiting in grade 1 nonfunctional neuroendocrine tumors; and postponing follow-up visits.

“We do our best,” she wrote in an email. “We keep treating cancer if treatment cannot wait.”

Riechelmann’s center has just launched a trial of hydroxychloroquine and tocilizumab therapy in patients with cancer who have severe COVID-19 and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

Meanwhile in New Haven, Chiang says for patients with cancer who are infected with COVID-19, her team is also prognosticating about the fair allocation of limited resources such as ventilators.

“If it ever gets to the point where somebody has to choose between a cancer patient and a noncancer patient in providing life support, it’s really important that people understand that cancer patients are doing very well nowadays and even with a diagnosis of cancer they can potentially live for many years, so that shouldn’t necessarily be a decision-point,” she emphasized.

This article first appeared on Medscape.com.

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