The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19): Key Facts and What It Means for People with Cancer

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An illustration of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

An illustration of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Science Source; Alissa Eckert; Dan Higgins

The 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has been in the news a lot lately. MSK Chief Medical Epidemiologist and infectious disease expert Mini Kamboj shares some facts about COVID-19 and what people with cancer should know.

What are coronaviruses, and what is different about COVID-19?

Coronaviruses make up a large family of viruses that have been around for years. They were first identified and described in the 1960s. I tell my patients they probably have already encountered a coronavirus at some point in their lives.

COVID-19 is a new strain that has potential to cause more severe illness. It is thought to have originated in animals before spreading to humans, similar to two other well-known coronaviruses, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). COVID-19 was first identified in humans in Wuhan, China, in 2019.

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How does COVID-19 spread?

COVID-19 spreads from person to person through droplets when a person with it coughs or sneezes close to another person, like the way the common cold or flu spreads.

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What are the signs of COVID-19?

COVID-19 causes cold or flu-like symptoms. These may include fever, cough, or difficulty breathing. It can cause serious problems, such as pneumonia and even death, especially in older people and people with other health problems, including cancer.

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Are there special concerns for people with cancer?

Mini Kamboj

Mini Kamboj

People with cancer often have weakened immune systems. This is referred to as being immunocompromised. This is usually due to treatment for their cancer, such as a bone marrow transplant for blood cancer or intensive chemotherapy for certain types of leukemia. But people can also become immunocompromised from intense radiation therapy or surgery. Having a weak immune system makes it harder for the body to fight off diseases, so it’s important for people with cancer and their family members to closely follow steps to protect themselves, especially when it comes to frequent handwashing. We recommend you speak with your doctor if you have concerns about your risk for COVID-19 being higher as a result of current or past cancer treatment.

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What steps can I take to help prevent myself from getting infected with COVID-19?

You can protect yourself from COVID-19 the same way you would from all respiratory infections, like the common cold or flu. Wash your hands often, for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.

If you go outside, keep a safe distance from other people, at least six feet. If you start having symptoms of COVID-19, call your doctor for guidance on the next step. If someone in your household has symptoms, maintain a safe distance from them, preferably in a separate room. 

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Should my healthcare provider always wear a mask? 

We’re telling all MSK staff members who are working in our clinical locations that they are required to wear a mask throughout their entire shift. There are several different types of masks, and the specific type we require our staff to wear depends on how closely the staff member is interacting with patients, including COVID-19 patients, and what procedures they may be doing.

At the same time, we remind both staff and patients that masks are not a substitute for essential practices, like washing your hands, and taking other precautions. People should not have a false sense of security because they are wearing a mask. Anyone with cold or flu-like symptoms should stay home to protect others.

For anyone wanting to learn more about COVID-19, I recommend visiting the COVID-19 web pages of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York City Department of Health.

COVID-19: What You Should Know
Learn what MSK patients and their family members should know about the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
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