As the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City and the Tri-State area begins to subside, oncologists at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) are urging patients to schedule cancer screenings and treatments now – as the long-term toll of missed diagnoses and delayed treatments could be devastating for patients and their loved ones across the region and the country.
One preliminary report from the United Kingdom predicts that the significant reduction in cancer care provided during the pandemic will result in nearly 34,000 excess deaths among cancer patients in the United States. Other reports predict thousands of missed or delayed cancer diagnoses due to people putting off screening appointments. According to a recent analysis performed by the Epic Health Research Network, appointments to screen for cervical, colon, and breast cancers were down about 90 percent in March this year, compared to the last three years.
“Cancer hasn’t sheltered in place during this pandemic. Cancer care is essential care, and we don’t want our patients to put their life-saving treatment on hold. We are committed to ensuring that patients have access to the world-class cancer care they expect from MSK, in a safe and healthy environment,” said Lisa M. DeAngelis, MD, MSK’s Physician-in-Chief and Chief Medical Officer. “COVID-19 has impacted the health and well being of our city, the country, and the world, but it has not derailed our mission to provide high-quality, compassionate cancer care for our patients each and every day.”
Dr. DeAngelis said, “We have one message for our patients: Memorial Sloan Kettering is here for you. Always has been, always will be.”
Here are some of the ways MSK is moving forward in the COVID-19 era:
Safety Precautions for Patients and Staff
MSK is adapting to the challenges COVID-19 presents and is an institution uniquely well-equipped to safely provide exceptional cancer care during this time. Our expertise in best practices for infection control stems from a long history of caring for immunocompromised patients. MSK currently has in place the following strict safety measures:
- Patient Screenings – All patients are screened the day before any scheduled visit to MSK. Screenings are conducted via phone call, text message, or MyMSK.
- Reducing Density in Facilities – Scheduling staff ensure there is adequate time between patient visits to help limit the number of people entering MSK facilities.
- Visitors – In collaboration with the New York State Department of Health, beginning May 26, MSK is participating in a two-week pilot program in which some hospitalized patients will be allowed to have visitors. For all other patients, MSK has technology to enable loved ones or others to join an appointment remotely via phone or tablet.
- Curbside Check-In – Wherever possible, new check-in procedures can be completed from a patient’s car or MSK building entrances.
- Clean & Safe Environment – All patients and staff are required to wear a mask at all times, which MSK provides if an individual does not have one. Some staff also wear gloves, gowns, face shields, and other PPE to help keep patients and staff safe. Cleaning efforts to disinfect and sanitize all high-touch and public areas also have increased.
- Staff Health Checks – All MSK staff are screened for any signs of illness and perform daily health checks before reporting to work.
- Testing – MSK’s COVID-19 testing is operating at full capacity, enabling the testing of patients and staff as frequently as necessary. Antibody testing to identify prior infections in patients and staff is also available.
- Telemedicine – If a patient is not able or does not want to come in for an appointment, he or she can request a telemedicine appointment. In many cases this can be an effective alternative for in-person care.
- Virtual Express Check-Out – Patients can leave right after an appointment is done, and MSK staff will follow up to schedule future appointments.
Growing Telehealth Capacity and Virtual Visitors
MSK has quickly built up its telehealth capacity, which reduces crowding in MSK facilities by allowing patients to access follow-up care remotely from the comfort of their homes, as well as accommodating “virtual visitors” for patients with in-person appointments. MSK went from performing about 100 telehealth visits per day in early March to now more than 1,200 per day, with plans for continued growth as this integral tool used to mitigate COVID-19 in the healthcare setting becomes established industrywide as a best practice.
Leadership in COVID-19 Testing, Treatment
MSK continues to be a leader in COVID-19 testing in an effort to keep patients, staff, and the community safe and healthy. At the beginning of the outbreak in New York City, MSK’s scientists developed a highly effective COVID-19 diagnostic test, and MSK was one of the first hospitals in New York authorized for COVID-19 diagnostic testing. MSK provides regular COVID-19 diagnostic testing to patients and staff, as well as antibody testing to detect prior infections. All surgical patients are tested prior to scheduled procedures; if a patient tests positive, MSK recommends he or she take two to three weeks to clear the virus before proceeding with the procedure.
Hundreds of Memorial Sloan Kettering employees who have recovered from COVID-19 have stepped forward to donate their plasma to treat patients through a clinical trial. Plasma from people who have recovered from a viral infection has long been known to have potentially therapeutic benefits for patients.
Resources for Patients
COVID-19 has created new and unprecedented challenges, but MSK staff are available to answer patients’ questions about what it means for cancer care. Tune into MSK’s recent information sessions, including Creating a Safe Space for Your Cancer Surgery and Breast Cancer and Breast Health, for more information directly from MSK clinicians. This ongoing series will soon cover other cancers as well.
Memorial Sloan Kettering’s (MSK) inpatient and outpatient facilities in New York City, Long Island, Westchester, and New Jersey are open and appointments are available for new and existing patients. If you have recently been diagnosed with cancer or need to continue ongoing cancer treatment, please visit https://www.mskcc.org/experience/become-patient/appointment to make an appointment.