No staff members or patients were diagnosed with COVID-19 after “strict protective measures” for screening and managing patients were implemented at the National Cancer Center/Cancer Hospital, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing, according to a report published online April 1 in JAMA Oncology.
However, the time period for the analysis, which included nearly 3000 patients, was short — only about 3 weeks (February 12 to March 3). Also, Beijing is more than 1100 kilometers from Wuhan, the center of the Chinese outbreak of COVID-19.
The Beijing cancer hospital implemented a multipronged safety plan in February in order to “avoid COVID-19 related nosocomial cross-infection between patients and medical staff,” explain the authors, led by medical oncologist Zhijie Wang, MD.
Notably, “all of the measures taken in China are actively being implemented and used in major oncology centers in the United States,” Robert Carlson, MD, chief executive officer, National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), told Medscape Medical News.
John Greene, MD, section chief, Infectious Disease and Tropical Medicine, Moffitt Cancer Center, Tampa, Florida, pointed out that the Chinese safety plan, which is full of “good measures,” is being largely used at his center. However, he observed that one tool — doing a temperature check at the hospital front door — is not well supported by most of the literature. “It gives good optics and looks like you are doing the most you possibly can, but scientifically it may not be as effective [as other screening measures],” he said.
The Chinese plan consists of four broad elements
First, the above-mentioned on-site temperature tests are performed at the entrances of the hospital, outpatient clinic, and wards. Contact and travel histories related to the Wuhan epidemic area are also established and recorded.
Second, an outpatient appointment scheduling system allows both online scheduling and on-site registration. Online consultation channels are open daily, featuring instruction on medication taking and cancer-related symptom management. These “substantially reduced the flow of people in the hospital,” write the authors. On-site patients must wear a mask and have their own disinfectant.
Third, for patients with cancer preparing to be admitted to hospital, symptoms associated with COVID-19, such as fever and cough, are recorded. Mandatory blood tests and CT scans of the lungs are performed. COVID-19 virus nucleic acid tests are performed for patients with suspected pneumonia on imaging.
Fourth, some anticancer drugs conventionally administered by infusion have been changed to oral administration, such as etoposide and vinorelbine. For adjuvant or maintenance chemotherapy, the infusion intervals were appropriately prolonged depending on patients’ conditions.
Eight out of 2,900 patients had imaging suspicious for infection
The Chinese authors report that a total of 2,944 patients with cancer were seen for clinic consultation and treatment in the wards (2795 outpatients and 149 inpatients).
Patients with cancer are believed to have a higher probability of severe illness and increased mortality compared with the healthy population once infected with COVID-19, point out the authors.
Under the new “strict screening strategy,” 27 patients showed radiologic manifestations of inflammatory changes or multiple-site exudative pneumonia in the lungs, including eight suspected of having COVID-19 infection. “Fortunately, negative results from nucleic acid testing ultimately excluded COVID-19 infection in all these patients,” the authors report.
However, two of these patients “presented with recovered pneumonia after symptomatic treatment.” Commenting on this finding, Moffitt’s Greene said that may mean these two patients were tested and found to be positive but were early in the infection and not yet shedding the virus, or they were infected after the initial negative result.
Greene said his center has implemented some measures not mentioned in the Chinese plan. For example, the Florida center no longer allows inpatient visitation. Also, one third of staff now work from home, resulting in less social interaction. Social distancing in meetings, the cafeteria, and hallways is being observed “aggressively,” and most meetings are now on Zoom, he said.
Moffitt has not been hard hit with COVID-19 and is at level one preparedness, the lowest rung. The center has performed 60 tests to date, with only one positive for the virus (< 2%), Greene told Medscape Medical News.
Currently, in the larger Tampa Bay community setting, about 12% of tests are positive.
The low percentage found among the Moffitt patients “tells you that a lot of cancer patients have fever and respiratory symptoms due to other viruses and, more importantly, other reasons, whether it’s their immunotherapy or chemotherapy or their cancer,” said Greene.
NCCN’s Carlson said the publication of the Chinese data was a good sign in terms of international science.
“This is a strong example of how the global oncology community rapidly shares information and experience whenever it makes a difference in patient care,” he commented.
The authors, as well as Carlson and Greene, have reported no relevant financial relationships.
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