Cancer Patients Need COVID-19 Vaccines

Posted: Dec 30, 2020 12:01 AM
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Cancer Patients Need COVID-19 Vaccines

Source: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, Pool

As COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out, an extremely vulnerable group is being overlooked: millions of cancer patients. Doctors nationwide are sounding the alarm that many state governments and the federal advisory committee charged with prioritizing who gets vaccinated should move cancer patients up to the front of the line, right after nursing home residents and frontline health care workers. Right now, they're deemed a lower priority than "essential workers" such as firefighters and mass transit employees.

Yet cancer patients are getting decimated by COVID-19. New data from 360 U.S. hospitals show that patients with cancer are more at risk of catching COVID-19 than the rest of the population. Once infected they are nearly twice as likely to be seriously ill and need hospitalization.

Even worse, they are three times as likely to die as other hospitalized COVID-19 patients, according to the new findings in the journal JAMA Oncology.

Pulmonologist Daniel Libby explains that cancer patients probably get infected frequently because they tend to visit doctor's offices. Also, their "defenses are low," meaning their immune systems are weaker.

This week, the COVID-Lung Cancer Consortium -- a group of oncologists -- is calling on the feds to reexamine priorities and pay "specific attention to this vulnerable population."

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo should do the same. Last week, Cuomo launched the Vaccine Equity Task Force. It includes immigrant advocates and civil rights leaders, as well as representatives from tenant associations, labor groups and churches, most of which are political allies of the governor. But not one cancer organization made the list.

"We're now talking about who's getting vaccinated, and let me be clear: There is no politics in the vaccination process," Cuomo says. That's hard to believe, Governor, considering who's on the task force and who's missing.

Cancer advocates are getting ignored. The American Society of Clinical Oncology and The American Cancer Society urged the federal advisory committee to make vaccinating cancer patients a top priority, but the committee's recommendation, announced Dec. 20, prioritized essential workers and people ages 75 and over to be next in line. That means some 17 million people with a history of cancer have to wait months longer.

Fred Hirsch, a renowned lung cancer specialist at Mount Sinai, argues for making them a high priority.

He's also investigating whether their weakened immune systems will mean they produce fewer antibodies when vaccinated. They may need more vaccinations --three shots instead of the two currently prescribed for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. This is all the more reason to get them started.

Meanwhile, in New York, politically connected unions representing transit workers and hospitality employees are calling state officials and pushing to be considered in the next round of "essential workers."

But cancer doctors complain they're in the dark about whom to call or when they'll have vaccines.

Ditto for doctors treating patients with other illnesses.

A Westchester woman tells me she's worried about her husband. He's 71, with Type 1 Diabetes and two heart stents, and he commutes to New York City on Metro North. His doctors don't know when they'll get vaccines. She says, "I can't believe 20-year-old supermarket workers will get it before him."

Both the federal vaccine committee and Cuomo defend prioritizing "essential" workers because it will mean vaccinating more minorities. Cuomo claims that "Black, Hispanic, Asian and low-income communities paid the highest price during COVID-19." That's a politically convenient exaggeration.

Minorities have been only slightly more impacted by COVID-19 than other people, according to the data. In New York State, excluding New York City, Hispanics constitute 12 percent of the population and 12 percent of COVID-19 deaths, while Blacks make up 9 percent of the population and 15 percent of the deaths. Similarly, in New York City, Blacks and Hispanics minorities have suffered more fatalities proportionality than whites, but only by five to six percentage points. In New York City, excluding the rest of the state, Asians experienced fewer deaths (7 percent) than their 14 percent share of the population.

The truth is that COVID-19 is an equal-opportunity killer. It is slaughtering cancer patients, no matter what their skin color.

Betsy McCaughey is a former lieutenant governor of New York and author of "The Next Pandemic," available at Amazon.com. Contact her at betsy@betsymccaughey.com or on Twitter @Betsy_McCaughey.