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Cancer care and COVID-19 in Seattle, the first U.S. epicenter


Two months after the first patient with COVID-19 was identified in China, the first case was reported in the United States in the Seattle, Washington, metropolitan area.

Seattle rapidly became the first US epicenter for COVID-19, and local experts are now offering their expertise and advice on how to provide optimal cancer care during the pandemic in a special feature published online March 20 in the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

“We began implementing measures in early March, including infection control and screening of visitors, staff, and patients at the door,” said lead author Masumi Ueda, MD, who holds positions at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the University of Washington, and the Fred Hutchinson Research Center.

“A lot of changes have been implemented, and it changes on a daily basis. We are responding to the growing rate of COVID-19 infection in the community,” she told Medscape Medical News.

Ueda notes that as a result of the quick implementation of new procedures, so far, very few cancer patients at their facilities have been infected by the virus. “It has not hit our cancer population hard, which is a good thing,” she said.

Create “Incident Command Structure”

In sharing their experience, the authors emphasize the importance of keeping channels of communication open between all stakeholders ― administrators and staff, patients, caregivers, and the general public. They also recommend that each facility create an “incident command structure” that can provide early coordination of institution-wide efforts and that can rapidly respond to changing information.

Ueda noted that their command structure was set up very early on, “so we could get communication set up and start building an infrastructure for response.”

Several areas of care that required new strategies were addressed, both to protect patients and to work around staff shortages caused by possible exposure and/or school closings, as well as projected shortages of supplies and hospital resources.

First and foremost was to identify patients and visitors who had respiratory symptoms and to provide them with masks. Although this is always routine practice during the respiratory virus season, screening has now been initiated at entry points throughout the system.

“We were lucky in Seattle and Washington state in that the University of Washington virology lab developed PCR [polymerase chain reaction] testing early on for COVID-19, which subsequently got FDA approval,” said Ueda. “So we were able to have local testing and didn’t have to rely on the state lab. Testing has also been rapidly scaled up.”

Initiating a comprehensive policy for testing staff, tracking results and exposures for persons under investigation, and defining when it is possible to return to work are essential elements for maintaining a stable workforce. In addition, reinforcing a strict “stay at home when ill” policy and providing access to testing for symptomatic staff have been key to limiting exposures.

“What is unique to our region is that we had testing early on, and we are turning it around in 24 hours,” she pointed out. “This is important for staff to be able to return to work.” Currently, staff, patients, and visitors are being tested only if they show the cardinal symptoms associated with COVID-19: fever, shortness of breath, and cough, although muscle aches have recently been added to their testing protocol.

“I think if we had unlimited capacity, we might consider testing people who are asymptomatic,” Ueda noted, “although if you don’t have symptoms, you may not have the viral load needed for an accurate test.”

Educational materials explaining infection control were also needed for patients and families, along with signs and a website to provide COVID-19 education. These were quickly developed.

In addition, a telephone triage line was established for patients with mild symptoms in order to minimize exposures in clinics and to lessen the number of patients presenting at emergency departments.


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