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With COVID-19 continuing to spread across the Chicago area and the country, we’ve seen that the disease can affect anyone of any age. But those who have underlying conditions and weakened immune systems still have a higher risk for complications. The coronavirus (COVID-19) leaves those who have chronic illnesses — such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and lung diseases — more vulnerable and reinforces the need to take extra precautions.
Rush providers Tochukwu (Tochi) Okwuosa, DO, director of the cardio-oncology program, and Teresa Deshields, PhD, director of the supportive oncology program, discuss the risks, safety measures and ways to cope during these uncertain times for patients who are immunocompromised.
A person who is immunocompromised has an immune system that is impaired, which makes it easier to contract an infection and diminishes the ability to fight the infection.
“When a person with a weakened immune system does get an infection, it tends to be more serious because it affects more organs and causes more damage to their body,” Okwuosa says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in the United States; and people with both of those conditions are at higher risk for COVID-19.
“Patients with cardiac diseases — such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes — are at risk for COVID-19 because their disease leads to poor circulation to their tissues,” Okwuosa says. “This then weakens the body’s ability to repair itself, which makes it easier for the infection to spread and cause more damage.
“Patients with cancer are at risk for COVID-19 because of the direct effects of their cancer and cancer treatments on the immune system," she adds. "Both can also affect a person's appetite, which leads to low blood protein and a weakened immune system, and, ultimately, poor healing.”
Okwuosa also notes that because patients with cardiac diseases and cancer tend to be older, they also have that added layer of susceptibility to COVID-19.
Maintaining social distance is key to staying safe for everyone — and it’s an even higher priority for those who are immunocompromised.
The challenge, however, is that many of these patients have in-person appointments or treatments, such as chemotherapy infusions. And the message to stay home as much as possible makes it difficult to know what to do about these appointments. Okwuosa recommends reaching out to your care team and determining what is essential and what can be done in a different way, such as virtual visits.
“Most routine office visits are being converted into virtual visits, which are done by phone or video,” Okwuosa says. “Providers will only ask patients, especially patients who are immunocompromised, to come in if it is really necessary. At Rush, we are trying to consolidate all clinic visits and testing to help lower the risk of spreading COVID-19.”
Deshields also emphasizes the increase in online care for safety reasons.
“Virtual care is becoming the new normal for health care during this time,” she says. “Our supportive oncology program offers most of our services — including nutritional counseling, chaplain services, guided meditation and psychosocial support — onsite for patients receiving essential care. But we are also now offering these services virtually. We’re trying to remain available to support patients in whatever way we can during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.”
To schedule a virtual appointment with our supportive oncology team, please call (312) 563-2531.
Okwuosa provides additional tips for patients who are immunocompromised to stay safe:
Taking extra precautions and finding healthy ways to cope can help you gain a stronger sense of control over your own health.
“With COVID-19, there’s a lot of stress with not knowing what to expect tomorrow, next week or even next month,” Deshields says. “It’s an unprecedented time for everyone, but we will get through this as a society.”
Deshields offers ways to cope with this new normal:
The coroavirus has introduced fear into the lives of many, especially those who are facing other health challenges. Taking extra precautions and finding healthy ways to cope can help you gain a stronger sense of control over your own health during these uncertain times.
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