Weakened Immune Systems During COVID-19

Why it's important to take extra precautions if you're immunocompromised

Cancer April 3, 2020
Weakened Immune Systems

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.

Risk factors of weakened immune systems during the coronavirus pandemic

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.

The imporance of staying safe

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:

  • If you need to go out for groceries, go only once a week or every two weeks, and stay at least six feet away from others while shopping.
  • Limit contact with caregivers coming in and out of the home. If they have to come into the home, they should take intense precautions.
  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water, and be sure to wash for 20 seconds each time.
  • Use hand sanitizer with alcohol content of at least 60% when soap is not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or face.
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick.
  • Clean and disinfect your household surfaces frequently.

Taking extra precautions and finding healthy ways to cope can help you gain a stronger sense of control over your own health.

Maintain good health during the coronavirus pandemic

“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:

  • Limit your exposure to the news. Carve out a few times in your day to check on the news and then disconnect. When you are online, make sure you’re receiving information about COVID-19 from credible sources, such as such as the CDC, the World Health Organization, Chicago Public Health Department, Rush and other health care organizations.  
  • Eat right. Though your daily routine may be difficult, it’s important to maintain a nutritious diet to stay healthy and feel good.
  • Stay as active as possible. Try to go outdoors when you can, but remember to maintain social distancing guidelines and avoid any areas with more than a few people in it. Also, there are increasing resources for online workout classes. Check with your local gym or the YMCA.
  • Stay connected. Social distancing can be particularly difficult, especially with changes in visitor policies for patients. Find remote ways to stay connected to friends and loved ones, such as social media, phone calls, FaceTime or Skype and texting. If anyone in your social network is particularly anxiety-provoking, limit your contact with them in order to protect your own well-being.

A life-saving reminder

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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