Patient-focused precautions, testing help blunt pandemic effects on heme-onc unit


Keeping hematologic oncology patients on their treatment regimens and caring for inpatients with hematologic malignancies remained “manageable” during the first 2 months of the COVID-19 pandemic at Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, N.C.

Dtr. Peter Voorhees, professor of medicine and director of Medical Operations and Outreach Services, Department of Hematologic Oncology and Blood Disorders, Levine Cancer Institute, Charlotte, N.C..

Dr. Peter Voorhees

That level of manageability has partly been because a surge in cases so far hasn’t arrived at Levine or in most of the surrounding North Carolina and South Carolina communities it serves. As of May 15, 2020, the total number of confirmed and reported COVID-19 cases had reached about 19,000 in North Carolina, and just under 9,000 in South Carolina, out of a total population in the two states of close to 16 million. What’s happened instead at Levine Cancer Institute (LCI) has been a steady but low drumbeat of cases that, by mid-May 2020, totaled fewer than 10 patients with hematologic malignancies diagnosed with COVID-19.

“For a large system with multiple sites throughout North and South Carolina that saw 17,200 new patients in 2019 – including solid tumor, benign hematology, and malignant hematology patients – with 198,000 total patient visits, it is safe to say that we are off to a good start. However, we remain in the early throes of the pandemic and we will need to remain vigilant going forward,” said Peter Voorhees, MD, professor of medicine and director of Medical Operations and Outreach Services in LCI’s Department of Hematologic Oncology and Blood Disorders.

The limited effects to date of COVID-19 at LCI has been thanks to a regimen of great caution for preventing infections that’s been consistently conveyed to LCI patients from before the pandemic’s onset, liberal testing that started early, a proactive plan to defer and temporarily replace infusion care when medically appropriate, a novel staffing approach designed to minimize and contain potential staff outbreaks, and an early pivot to virtual patient contact when feasible.

COVID-19 has had limited penetration into the LCI case load because patients have, in general, “been very careful,” said Dr. Voorhees.

“My impression is that the incidence has been low partly because our patients, especially those with hematologic malignancies including those on active chemotherapy, were already getting warned to be cautious even before the coronavirus using distancing, masking, and meticulous hand hygiene,” he said in an interview that reviewed the steps LCI took starting in March to confront and manage the effects of the then-nascent pandemic. “Since we started screening asymptomatic patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings we have identified only one patient with COVID-19 infection, which supports the low rate of infection in our patient population thus far.”

Another key step was the launch of “robust” testing for the COVID-19 virus starting on March 9, using an in-house assay from LCI’s parent health system, Atrium Health, that delivered results within 24 hours. Testing became available at LCI “earlier than at many other health systems.” At first, testing was limited to patients or staff presenting with symptoms, but in the following weeks, it expanded to more patients, including those without symptoms who were scheduled for treatment at the apheresis center, cell donors and cell recipients, patients arriving for inpatient chemotherapy or cellular therapy, patients arriving from a skilled nursing facility or similar environments, and more recently, outpatient chemotherapy patients. “We’re now doing a lot of screening,” Dr. Voorhees said. “In general, screening has been well received because patients recognize that it’s for their own safety.”

Another piece of COVID-19 preparedness was a move toward technology as an alternative to face-to-face encounters between patients and staff. “We adopted virtual technology early.” When medically appropriate, they provided either video consultations with more tech-savvy patients or telephone-based virtual visits for patients who preferred a more familiar interface. As LCI starts the process of reentry for patients whose face-to-face encounters were deferred, virtual visits will remain an important facet of maintaining care while limiting exposure for appropriate patients and facilitating adequate space for social distancing in the clinics and infusion centers.

Atrium Health also launched a “virtual hospital” geared to intensified remote management of COVID-19 patients who aren’t sick enough for hospitalization. “People who test positive automatically enter the virtual hospital and have regular interactions with their team of providers,” with LCI providing additional support for their patients who get infected. Patients receive an equipment kit that lets them monitor and transmit their vital signs. The virtual hospital program also helps expedite personal needs like delivery of prescriptions and food. “It helps patients manage at home, and has been incredibly useful,” said Dr. Voorhees.

Perhaps the most challenging step LCI clinicians took to preclude a potential COVID-19 case surge was to review all patients receiving infusional therapy or planned cellular therapy and triage those who could potentially tolerate a temporary change to either an oral, at-home regimen or to a brief hold on their treatment. Some patients on maintenance, outpatient infusion-therapy regimens “expressed concern about coming to the clinic. We looked at the patients scheduled to come for infusions and decided which visits were essential and which were deferrable without disrupting care by briefly using a noninfusional approach,” said Dr. Voorhees. The number of patients who had their regimens modified or held was “relatively small,” and with the recent recognition that a surge of infections has not occurred, “we’re now rolling out cautious reentry of those patients back to their originally prescribed chemotherapy.”

In addition to concerns of exposure at infusion clinics, there are concerns about the heightened susceptibility of immunosuppressed hematologic oncology patients to COVID-19 and their risk for more severe infection. “Our view is that, if patients tested positive, continuing immunosuppressive treatment would likely be detrimental,” so when possible treatment is temporarily suspended and then resumed when the infection has cleared. “When patients test positive for a prolonged period, a decision to resume treatment must be in the best interests of the patient and weigh the benefits of resuming therapy against the risks of incurring a more severe infection by restarting potentially immunosuppressive therapy,” Dr. Voorhees said.

The enhanced risk that cancer patients face if they develop COVID-19 was documented in a recent review of 218 cancer patients hospitalized for COVID-19 during parts of March and April in a large New York health system. The results showed an overall mortality rate of 28%, including a 37% rate among 54 patients with hematologic malignancies and a 25% rate among 164 patients with solid tumors. The mortality rate “may not be quite as high as they reported because that depends on how many patients you test, but there is no question that patients with more comorbidities are at higher risk. Patients with active cancer on chemotherapy are a particularly vulnerable population, and many have expressed concerns about their vulnerability,” he observed.

For the few LCI patients who developed COVID-19 infection, the medical staff has had several therapeutic options they could match to each patient’s needs, with help from the Atrium Health infectious disease team. LCI and Atrium Health are participating in several COVID-19 clinical treatment trials, including an investigational convalescent plasma protocol spearheaded by the Mayo Clinic. They have also opened a randomized, phase 2 trial evaluating the safety and efficacy of selinexor (Xpovio), an oral drug that’s Food and Drug Administration approved for patients with multiple myeloma, for treatment of moderate or severe COVID-19 infection. Additional studies evaluating blockade of granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor, as well as inhaled antiviral therapy, have recently launched, and several additional studies are poised to open in the coming weeks.

The LCI and Atrium Health team also has a supply of the antiviral agent remdesivir as part of the FDA’s expanded access protocol and emergency use authorization. They also have a supply of and experience administering the interleukin-6 receptor inhibitor tocilizumab (Actemra), which showed some suggestion of efficacy in limited experience treating patients with severe or critical COVID-19 infections (Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2020 Apr 29; doi: 10.1073/pnas.2005615117). Clinicians at LCI have not used the investigational and unproven agents hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, and azithromycin to either prevent or treat COVID-19.

LCI also instituted measures to try to minimize the risk that staff members could become infected and transmit the virus while asymptomatic. Following conversations held early on with COVID-19–experienced health authorities in China and Italy, the patient-facing LCI staff split into two teams starting on March 23 that alternated responsibility for direct patient interactions every 2 weeks. When one of these teams was off from direct patient contact they continued to care for patients remotely through virtual technologies. The concept was that, if a staffer became infected while remaining asymptomatic during their contact with patients, their status would either become diagnosable or resolve during their 2 weeks away from seeing any patients. Perhaps in part because of this approach infections among staff members “have not been a big issue. We’ve had an incredibly low infection rate among the LCI staff,” Dr. Voorhees noted.

By mid-May, with the imminent threat of a sudden CODIV-19 surge moderated, heme-onc operations at LCI began to cautiously revert to more normal operations. “We’re continuing patient screening for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 infection, testing for asymptomatic infections, and requiring masking and social distancing in the clinics and hospitals, but we’re starting to slowly restore the number of patients at our clinics [virtual and face to face[ and infusion centers,” and the staff’s division into two teams ended. “The idea was to get past a surge and make sure our system was not overwhelmed. We anticipated a local surge in late April, but then it kept getting pushed back. Current projections are for the infection rate among LCI patients to remain low provided that community spread remains stable or, ideally, decreases.” The LCI infectious disease staff is closely monitoring infection rates for early recognition of an outbreak, with plans to follow any new cases with contact tracing. So far, the COVID-19 pandemic at LCI “has been very manageable,” Dr. Voorhees concluded.

“We’re now better positioned to deal with a case surge if it were to happen. We could resume the two-team approach, hospital-wide plans are now in place for a future surge, and we are now up and running with robust testing and inpatient and outpatient virtual technology. The first time, we were all learning on the fly.”

The LCI biostatistics team has been prospectively collecting the Institutes’s COVID-19 patient data, with plans to report their findings.

Dr. Voorhees has had financial relationships with Bristol-Myers Squibb/Celgene, Janssen, Novartis, and Oncopeptides, none of which are relevant to this article.

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