Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund: updated December 23, 2020.
The coronavirus can infect anyone, young or old, healthy or frail. But, people diagnosed with cancer during the last year are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 if they are infected. Here’s what you need to know.
People who are over 60 or who have cancer and other serious health conditions, and their loved ones, need to be especially careful to avoid getting infected. A study published in December 2020 of more than 2 million cancer patients, found that people diagnosed with cancer during the previous year are much more likely to die of COVID compared to other COVID patients. All cancer patients were at higher risk, but the ones in most danger had been diagnosed with leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or lung cancer. The CDC has also updated their list of other health problems that put people at greatest risk, and they include many common health conditions: Anyone who is obese (BMI of 30 or higher) or has a serious heart condition, Type 2 diabetes, a weakened immune system (from cancer or an organ transplant), chronic kidney disease, COPD, or sickle cell disease is especially at risk if they are exposed to the coronavirus. Smoking also increases the risk of being seriously harmed by the virus, as do many other medical conditions, including asthma, high blood pressure, pregnancy, HIV, and liver disease.
If you had scheduled medical appointments, surgery, screening, or other procedures in the spring that were considered not urgent or not immediately life-threatening, those were probably postponed. This was for everyone’s protection. Many of those procedures were rescheduled for the summer or autumn, but may have been postponed again as Covid-19 cases surged in October. Many hospital staff, including doctors, nurses, receptionists, and cleaning staff, have been exposed to the virus and don’t know whether they can infect others. You don’t want to be exposed to the coronavirus when you go in for surgery or testing procedures for other medical conditions. And, you don’t want your medical center to be less able to fight the coronavirus at a time when it is spreading throughout your community.
Will the COVID vaccines make it safer to have medical procedures or doctor’s appointments? To visit friends and family members?
Healthcare workers are starting to be vaccinated in mid-December, but it could be weeks before most healthcare workers get their first vaccine dose, and they won’t get their second dose until a month later. Pregnant healthcare workers and those with serious allergies may choose not to be vaccinated. More important, the vaccines do not prevent infection, even though they usually prevent people from getting obviously sick. If your healthcare worker is vaccinated, he or she could have asymptomatic COVID without knowing it, and could possibly infect others. For that reason, healthcare workers and patients need to continue to wear masks and keep their distance.
The coronavirus is still spreading in all 50 states, in urban, suburban, and rural areas, so it is important to listen to health experts who tell you to stay home, limit contact with others, wear a mask, and keep a distance of 6 feet away when you or your family members or caregivers go grocery shopping or other essential activities. It will be months before most people are vaccinated. Unfortunately, some governors, mayors, and state legislators have reopened businesses for political reasons, even in states where the virus is spiking. Even if you are staying at home as much as possible, the fact that others in your community are going to bars, parties, restaurants, stores, and hair salons will put you at greater risk when you make essential visits to the supermarket, to work, to the doctor, or spend time outdoors, because you may come into contact with people who are infected because they aren’t being as careful as you are.
What is coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that can cause respiratory illness. The new (novel) coronavirus is called SARS-CoV-2 and the illness it causes is called coronavirus disease 2019, which is why it’s abbreviated as COVID-19. Since it is new, nobody has immunity from it.
How does COVID-19 spread between people?
The virus usually spreads through close contact with other people, especially through invisible or very tiny droplets when a person coughs, sneezes, sings, exercises – or even when they breathe or talk normally. These droplets can travel through the air and can be inhaled or get into the noses, mouths, or eyes of people nearby.
The virus is thought to be most contagious in the days just before and just after a person develops symptoms, but it is possible to catch the virus from infected people who have no symptoms at all. Experts still don’t know how contagious the virus is when a person has it but never develops symptoms. This is crucial information that scientists are trying to find out, especially since experts believe that many young children never develop symptoms, while other children get very sick and some have died from the coronavirus.
What about children? Unlike the flu, which is riskiest for the youngest children and oldest adults, infants and young children are much less likely to get sick from the coronavirus than adults. Preliminary studies suggest that children over 10 are as contagious as adults, but that younger children are much less infectious. For example, there are few known examples of the virus spreading in daycare centers that follow coronavirus safety standards. Nevertheless, almost half a million children have been diagnosed with the virus in the U.S. (almost 10% of all cases) and 70,000 children were newly diagnosed in late August, which was 17% more than the weekly number of new cases two weeks earlier. Fortunately, few children become so sick that they are hospitalized (estimates range from less than 1% to 8.5%), and less than half of 1% of children diagnosed with coronavirus in the U.S. have died.
The tiny droplets from coughing, sneezing, singing, talking, or breathing (as well as fecal matter containing the virus) can result in the virus on surfaces where it can survive for hours or even days. When you touch these surfaces and then touch your face, you can be exposed to the virus. However, there are no documented cases of anyone catching COVID from a surface. Nevertheless, it’s important to wash your hands regularly. If you’re concerned about exposure at home, you can wipe down surfaces in your bathroom, kitchen, and other rooms with bleach or rubbing alcohol to help prevent exposure.
What about food or food packaging? The risk of catching the virus from packaging is extremely low, but it’s a good idea to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds after handling mail, takeout containers, and packaging from groceries. You don’t need to disinfect food packages using a cleaning product that kills viruses, and NEVER use bleach or disinfectants on fruit, vegetables, or any other food.
What about the vaccines?
If you are eligible to be vaccinated with either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, that is the best protection available for most people. Keep in mind, however, that the vaccines were not studied on nursing home patients and not studied on many people with COVID who were ages 65 or older, so it might be less effective for older people. (Flu vaccines are often less effective for older people, because their immune systems are weaker). The vaccines were found to be as safe for adults of all ages and races, but little is known about how effective the vaccines are for people who are non-White because so few in the studies’ placebo groups or vaccinated groups developed COVID. The vaccines were not studied on people under 18, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems, or those with serious allergies, so there is no safety or effectiveness data for them.
Both of the vaccines have frequent side effects such as fatigue and chills, especially after the second dose. These are not considered dangerous, but it is important that anyone getting vaccinated is told about those risks, since they could be frightening to patients who don’t understand that those symptoms are not thought to be reason for concern.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
Symptoms tend to start between 2 and 14 days after coming into contact with the virus. Although some people have compared the symptoms to a cold or flu, not everyone with COVID-19 has those types of symptoms. In fact, some people (especially children, teens, and younger adults) have very mild symptoms or none at all, which is why getting tested is so important before you spend time with others. The CDC says that people with these symptoms or combination of symptoms may have COVID-19:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Or at least two of these symptoms:
- Repeated shaking with chills
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat
- New loss of taste or smell
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
Those are the most common symptoms. However, children or adults can have other symptoms as well, including heart problems and “covid toes” that look like a minor case of frostbite.
Most people who are infected with this coronavirus have mild symptoms and can recover at home in about 2 weeks. However, symptoms can become severe. These are the ones that require immediate medical attention:
- difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- persistent chest pain or pressure
- confusion or inability to awaken
- blueish color in the lips or face
As described above, people who are older than 60 or with other medical conditions are more likely to develop severe illness and complications from COVID-19. The most serious complications include pneumonia, stroke, blood clots, organ failure, and death.
How else can I protect myself and others?
If you are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, the best way to protect yourself is to avoid being exposed to the virus. There are no proven cures, so don’t be fooled by claims regardless of the source. Two types of medications have been found to help people who are seriously ill, but are not a cure. Remdesivir has been found to help very ill patients by reducing the number of days of hospitalization in one study, but was not effective in a WHO study published in October. It has not been proven to save lives. Two inexpensive steroids, dexamethasone and hydrocortisone, have been found to reduce the chances of dying among COVID-19 patients on ventilators or those requiring oxygen, but not other patients. Regeneron, the experimental antibody drug that President Trump took when he was diagnosed, is not generally available but has been used with good results by some friends of the President. However, it was found to have a potential safety concern and as of October 30 is no longer being administered experimentally to hospitalized patients receiving mechanical ventilation of intense oxygen. It is still being studied on less seriously ill COVID-19 patients.
Despite the hopes of the White House, experts now agree that hydroxychloroquine with or without azithromycin is not a good treatment for COVID-19 because it has been found to increase heart problems and has not been shown to prevent or treat COVID-19. Another possible treatment is blood plasma from people who recovered from COVID-19. Research has shown these transfusions are usually safe, but there is no clear evidence that they are beneficial.
Research is continuing to find out which of these treatments are safe and effective and for which patients.
“Social distancing” or “physical distancing” refers to staying away from other people because it is impossible to know who has the virus. The safest people in your life are the ones you are living with who are not exposed to others who might have the virus (in other words, they are not going to work or spending time close to other people). Staying at home and not seeing your friends and loved ones is not fun, but it is essential for your own safety and for everyone else’s. If everyone does that now, the spread of this virus will be reduced sooner, and some of these restrictions will no longer be necessary in a few weeks.
Spending time with friends, family, or people at work
In general, the more people you interact with, the more closely you interact with them, and the longer that interaction, the greater your chances of becoming infected or infecting others. That’s why there have been so many cases after Thanksgiving, and why hospitals are full all over the country. So, think about:
- How many people will you interact with? (The fewer the better)
- Can you keep 6 feet of space between you and others?
- Will you be outdoors or indoors? (Outdoors is somewhat safer. It can be heated but not if it has walls all around and a ceiling.)
- What’s the length of time that you will be interacting with people? (Shorter is better)
Research conclusively shows that face masks or cloth that covers your mouth and nose help to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Some masks are more effective than others: stretchy “gators” may actually do more harm than good, and bandanas and scarves are too loose to be very helpful. The paper masks worn in hospitals are effective and so are cloth masks you can make for yourself or buy, if they are made of cotton and at least two layers thick. Masks are important to prevent people from spreading the virus and also to help helps prevent infection or serious symptoms for the person wearing the masks.
The benefit of masks is clear when we look at a map of where COVID-19 cases are located in the U.S. and where people are most likely to wear masks. States with green lines have high rates of mask usage (90-99% of people wearing masks) and states with dotted lines or no lines at all have the lowest rates of wearing masks (less than 80% or less than 70%, respectively). As we can see from the map, in states where people are less likely to wear masks, there are more COVID-19 cases. In New York, for example, where 92% of people wear masks, only 14% of people reported knowing someone with COVID-19 symptoms. On the other hand, South Dakota, which has the lowest rate of mask usage in the U.S. (65%), had the highest percentage of people –45%– who knew someone with COVID-19.
Data as of Oct. 19
Source: Delphi CovidCast, Carnegie Mellon University and The Washington Post
Bottom line: Since most of us haven’t been vaccinated and can’t get coronavirus tests every day, it’s especially important to wear masks whenever you are out in public or with people you don’t live with. But you should NOT be out in public or with people you don’t live with except when it’s essential. Depending on your age, health, and who you spend time with, it may not be safe for you to go to all the places that are open. Especially avoid indoor areas where you are likely to be close to others for more than a very short period of time (15 minutes) or whose workers are close to many other people, such as a tattoo parlor, hair or nail salon, restaurant, concert, party or movie theater. If you must go to a store, try to go to one that makes appointments with customers or limits the number of customers, and spend less than one hour indoors to reduce exposure to any coronavirus that is in the air.
- stay at home or go outside in your yard or neighborhood where you can keep at least 6 feet away from others
- avoid public spaces where there are other people, especially indoors
- avoid public transportation when possible and unnecessary travel
- avoid all social gatherings that are indoors or where people are close together
- work from home
- stay at least 6 feet away from people when out in public (indoors or outdoors). Further away is even better, especially if people are singing or talking, or if there isn’t good air filtration.
- avoid physical contact in social situations, such as shaking hands, hugging or kissing
- wash your hands using soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after being out in public
- use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available (or wash your hands as soon as you get home)
- avoid touching your face when your hands aren’t clean or you are out in public
- avoid contact with people you don’t know very well
- put the toilet seat down before flushing in a shared or public bathroom
- a lower priority would be to clean and disinfect surfaces, and only those in your home or workplace that could expose you frequently to the virus, including doorknobs, light switches, faucet handles, and phones. An antibacterial cleaning agent won’t kill a virus, so try to find one that is effective for killing viruses.
If you have a weakened immune system or other serious health problems, here are extra steps to protect yourself:
- Make a plan with your doctor to monitor for symptoms
- Avoid friends and family except those you live with or depend on for essentials. Otherwise, rely on your phone or computer to maintain contact.
- Have a plan with your loved ones or caregiver if you or they get sick
- Have the medications you rely on and order any you need in advance (to be delivered, if possible)
- Ask a friend or family member to shop for groceries for you
- Wash your hands (20 seconds with soap and water) even more often if you are exposed to others
What should I do if I develop symptoms?
If you develop more than one of the symptoms listed above, call your doctor. If you have severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, persistent chest pain or pressure, confusion or inability to awaken, or blueish color in the lips or face, you need to call 911. Tell the 911 operator that you think you have COVID-19 so the responders can take the necessary precautions to protect themselves.
People who experience mild symptoms can usually stay home and will recover in about 2 weeks. Do not just show up at the doctor’s office with symptoms: Call them first so you have tell them about your symptoms and any other health problems so that they can help decide what to do. If you do become sick, you can take the following steps to protect others:
- Stay home, unless you need essential medical care
- Wear a facemask when you are near others. (People caring for you should also wear a facemask).
- Stay away from others in your home as much as possible
- Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, properly dispose of tissues, and wash your hands
- Monitor your symptoms and temperature
If you were not tested for COVID-19, you should follow those steps until at least one or two weeks have passed since you first noticed symptoms or your fever or other symptoms go away for 3 full days without medicine. If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19 based on test results, you should follow those same steps until you have 2 negative test results taken 24-hours apart, and your symptoms improve.
What if my other scheduled medical treatment is delayed?
When a person is diagnosed with a serious disease, they are likely to want treatment as soon as possible. If you don’t have COVID-19, you don’t want to be exposed to it during surgery, testing, or follow-up appointments. Treatment or testing may seem more urgent than it really is, but it is definitely more important than going to a restaurant, store, or party. Some medical centers are overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, and others are not. Talk to your doctor about what is the best strategy to get the treatment you need when it is safe to do so.
Wondering who to believe when experts – or politicians — disagree? Check out our new Myths vs. Reality chart.
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