ASCO Panel Outlines Cancer Care Challenges During COVID-19 Pandemic

Neil Osterweil

April 27, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to exact a heavy price on cancer patients, cancer care, and clinical trials, an expert panel reported during a presscast.

"Limited data available thus far are sobering: In Italy, about 20% of COVID-related deaths occurred in people with cancer, and, in China, COVID-19 patients who had cancer were about five times more likely than others to die or be placed on a ventilator in an intensive care unit," said Howard A "Skip" Burris, MD, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and president and CEO of the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute in Nashville, Tenn.

"We also have little evidence on returning COVID-19 patients with cancer. Physicians have to rely on limited data, anecdotal reports, and their own professional expertise" regarding the extent of increased risk to cancer patients with COVID-19, whether to interrupt or modify treatment, and the effects of cancer on recovery from COVID-19 infection, Dr. Burris said during the ASCO-sponsored online presscast.

Care of COVID-Free Patients

For cancer patients without COVID-19, the picture is equally dim, with the prospect of delayed surgery, chemotherapy, or screening; shortages of medications and equipment needed for critical care; the shift to telemedicine that may increase patient anxiety; and the potential loss of access to innovative therapies through clinical trials, Dr. Burris said.

"We're concerned that some hospitals have effectively deemed all cancer surgeries to be elective, requiring them to be postponed. For patients with fast-moving or hard-to-treat cancer, this delay may be devastating," he said.

Dr. Burris also cited concerns about delayed cancer diagnosis. "In a typical month, roughly 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with cancer. But right now, routine screening visits are postponed, and patients with pain or other warning signs may put off a doctor's visit because of social distancing," he said.

The pandemic has also exacerbated shortages of sedatives and opioid analgesics required for intubation and mechanical ventilation of patients.

Trials Halted or Slowed

Dr. Burris also briefly discussed results of a new survey, which were posted online ahead of publication in JCO Oncology Practice. The survey showed that, of 14 academic and 18 community-based cancer programs, 59.4% reported halting screening and/or enrollment for at least some clinical trials and suspending research-based clinical visits except for those where cancer treatment was delivered.

"Half of respondents reported ceasing research-only blood and/or tissue collections," the authors of the article reported.

"Trial interruptions are devastating news for thousands of patients; in many cases, clinical trials are the best or only appropriate option for care," Dr. Burris said.

The article authors, led by David Waterhouse, MD, of Oncology Hematology Care in Cincinnati, pointed to a silver lining in the pandemic cloud in the form of opportunities to improve clinical trials going forward.

"Nearly all respondents (90.3%) identified telehealth visits for participants as a potential improvement to clinical trial conduct, and more than three-quarters (77.4%) indicated that remote patient review of symptoms held similar potential," the authors wrote.

Other potential improvements included remote site visits from trial sponsors and/or contract research organizations, more efficient study enrollment through secure electronic platforms, direct shipment of oral drugs to patients, remote assessments of adverse events, and streamlined data collection.

Lessons From the Front Lines

Another member of the presscast panel, Melissa Dillmon, MD, of the Harbin Clinic Cancer Center in Rome, Georgia, described the experience of community oncologists during the pandemic.

Her community, located in northeastern Georgia, experienced a COVID-19 outbreak in early March linked to services at two large churches. Community public health authorities issued a shelter-in-place order before the state government issued stay-at-home guidelines and shuttered all but essential business, some of which were allowed by state order to reopen as of April 24.

Dr. Dillmon's center began screening patients for COVID-19 symptoms at the door, limited visitors or companions, instituted virtual visits and tumor boards, and set up a cancer treatment triage system that would allow essential surgeries to proceed and most infusions to continue, while delaying the start of chemotherapy when possible.

"We have encouraged patients to continue on treatment, especially if treatment is being given with curative intent, or if the cancer is responding well already to treatment," she said.

The center, located in a community with a high prevalence of comorbidities and high incidence of lung cancer, has seen a sharp decline in colonoscopies, mammograms, and lung scans as patient shelter in place.

"We have great concerns about patients missing their screening lung scans, as this program has already proven to be finding earlier lung cancers that are curable," Dr. Dillmon said.

A View From Washington State

Another panel member, Gary Lyman, MD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, described the response by the state of Washington, the initial epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.

Following identification of infections in hospitalized patients and at a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, "our response, which began in early March and progressed through the second and third week in March at the state level, was to restrict large gatherings; progressively, schools were closed; larger businesses closed; and, by March 23, a stay-at-home policy was implemented, and all nonessential businesses were closed," Dr. Lyman said.

"We believe, based on what has happened since that time, that this has considerably flattened the curve," he continued.

Lessons from the Washington experience include the need to plan for a long-term disruption or alteration of cancer care, expand COVID-19 testing to all patients coming into hospitals or major clinics, institute aggressive supportive care measures, prepare for subsequent waves of infection, collect and share data, and, for remote or rural areas, identify lifelines to needed resources, Dr. Lyman said.

ASCO Resources

Also speaking at the presscast, Jonathan Marron, MD, of Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, outlined ASCO's guidance on allocation of scarce resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Richard L. Schilsky, MD, ASCO chief medical officer and executive vice president, outlined community-wide collaborations, data initiatives, and online resources for both clinicians and patients.

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