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Even When Cancer Is in Remission, Patients' Risks of Severe COVID Rise

HealthDay News
by Robert Preidt
Updated: Jan 22nd 2021

new article illustration

FRIDAY, Jan. 22, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- Your cancer has gone into remission, so you breathe a sigh of relief as you try to navigate the coronavirus pandemic safely.

Not so fast, says new research that finds even cancer patients in remission still have a high risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19.

Previous studies have shown that cancer patients who have active disease or are hospitalized are at increased risk of severe COVID-19. Now, this latest report shows that protective measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing are just as important for cancer patients in remission, Penn Medicine researchers said.

"Patients who have cancer need to be careful not to become exposed during this time," said senior study author Dr. Kara Maxwell, an assistant professor of hematology-oncology and genetics at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine.

"That message has been out there, but these latest findings show us it's not only for patients hospitalized or on treatment for their cancer," Maxwell said in a Penn news release. "All oncology patients need to take significant precautions during the pandemic to protect themselves."

Maxwell's team studied 323 people who tested positive for COVID-19 through June 2020, and found that nearly 21% had a cancer diagnosis in their medical history. Of those, 73% had inactive cancer.

COVID-19 patients with active cancer (18) and inactive cancer (49) had higher rates of hospitalization than those without cancer (55.2% vs. 29%), intensive care unit admissions (25.4% vs. 11.7%), and death over 30 days (13.4% vs. 1.6%).

Worse outcomes were more strongly associated with patients with active cancer, but patients in cancer remission also had an increased risk of more severe disease, according to the study published online Jan. 21 in the journal JNCI Cancer Spectrum.

"Our finding that cancer patients with COVID-19 were more likely than non-cancer patients to experience hospitalization and death, even after adjusting for patient-level factors supports the hypothesis that cancer is an independent risk factor for poor COVID-19 outcomes," Maxwell and her colleagues wrote.

In a separate related study, Penn Medicine researchers found that cancer patients receiving in-person care at a facility with aggressive COVID-19 prevention measures have an extremely low risk of infection. Of 124 cancer patients receiving treatment at Penn Medicine, none tested positive for the virus after their clinical visits (an average of 13 per patient).

The findings suggest that a combination of strict prevention controls in cancer care facilities and social distancing outside the facilities may help protect cancer patients from COVID-19 exposure and infection, the authors said. This study was published on the preprint server medRxiv and has not yet been peer-reviewed.

More information

The American Cancer Society has more on COVID-19 and cancer.

SOURCE: Penn Medicine, news release, Jan. 21, 2021