Advice from the front lines: How cancer centers can cope with COVID-19


There are several steps cancer centers can take in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the medical director of a cancer care alliance in the first U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

Jennie R. Crews, MD, medical director of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance

Dr. Jennie R. Crews

Jennie R. Crews, MD, the medical director of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA), discussed the SCCA experience and offered advice for other cancer centers in a webinar hosted by the Association of Community Cancer Centers.

Dr. Crews highlighted the SCCA’s use of algorithms to predict which patients can be managed via telehealth and which require face-to-face visits, human resource issues that arose at SCCA, screening and testing procedures, and the importance of communication with patients, caregivers, and staff.


Dr. Crews stressed the value of clear, regular, and internally consistent staff communication in a variety of formats. SCCA sends daily email blasts to their personnel regarding policies and procedures, which are archived on the SCCA intranet site.

SCCA also holds weekly town hall meetings at which leaders respond to staff questions regarding practical matters they have encountered and future plans. Providers’ up-to-the-minute familiarity with policies and procedures enables all team members to uniformly and clearly communicate to patients and caregivers.

Dr. Crews emphasized the value of consistency and “over-communication” in projecting confidence and preparedness to patients and caregivers during an unsettling time. SCCA has developed fact sheets, posted current information on the SCCA website, and provided education during doorway screenings.

Screening and testing

All SCCA staff members are screened daily at the practice entrance so they have personal experience with the process utilized for patients. Because symptoms associated with coronavirus infection may overlap with cancer treatment–related complaints, SCCA clinicians have expanded the typical coronavirus screening questionnaire for patients on cancer treatment.

Patients with ambiguous symptoms are masked, taken to a physically separate area of the SCCA clinics, and screened further by an advanced practice provider. The patients are then triaged to either the clinic for treatment or to the emergency department for further triage and care.

Although testing processes and procedures have been modified, Dr. Crews advised codifying those policies and procedures, including notification of results and follow-up for both patients and staff. Dr. Crews also stressed the importance of clearly articulated return-to-work policies for staff who have potential exposure and/or positive test results.

At the University of Washington’s virology laboratory, they have a test turnaround time of less than 12 hours.

Planning ahead

Dr. Crews highlighted the importance of community-based surge planning, utilizing predictive models to assess inpatient capacity requirements and potential repurposing of providers.

The SCCA is prepared to close selected community sites and shift personnel to other locations if personnel needs cannot be met because of illness or quarantine. Contingency plans include specialized pharmacy services for patients requiring chemotherapy.

The SCCA has not yet experienced shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE). However, Dr. Crews said staff require detailed education regarding the use of PPE in order to safeguard the supply while providing maximal staff protection.


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