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Blood Cancer Patients Face More Severe Illness and Death from COVID-19

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February 24, 2021

Patients Need to Exercise Caution to Avoid Infection

  • In the American Society of Hematology Registry, 30% of blood cancer patients had mild cases of COVID-19, 38% had moderate cases, and 30% had infections severe enough to require admission to the ICU
  • Mortality among patients with hematologic cancers was 28%, more than nine times higher than mortality in the U.S. population overall
  • Given the high risk of severe illness and death in these patients, they need to continue following precautions, even in the era of COVID vaccines
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Having cancer increases the risk of severe illness from COVID-19. The immune system, already compromised by cancer and its therapies, can’t respond as effectively as it could in a healthy patient. The risk of worse outcomes is particularly high for patients with blood cancers. “When they get COVID-19, they tend to get more severe illness and to die more frequently,” Dr. Mikkael Sekeres, chief of the Division of Hematology at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, who was formerly with the Cleveland Clinic, tells SurvivorNet Connect.

The American Society of Hematology COVID-19 registry was established to track infections in patients with hematologic malignancies. Among the first 250 people who were entered, just over 30% had mild COVID-19, 38% had moderate cases, and 30% had infections severe enough to require an intensive care unit (ICU).

Mortality for patients with blood cancers was 28% — more than nine times higher than COVID-19 mortality in the U.S. population as a whole, and higher than what is typically seen in cancer patients. Dr. Sekeres says the higher rates of COVID-19 mortality in cancer patients is probably largely driven by patients with hematologic malignancies. The true mortality rate in patients with advanced stage cancers with severe COVID-19 infection could be even higher, as many patients with blood cancers — especially those with late-stage cancers — are opting not to go to the ICU and their deaths may not be captured in studies of ICU mortality.

Given the high risk of death in this population, Dr. Sekeres cautions his patients to continue protecting themselves. “Even as they’re starting to get vaccines, they still have to maintain their precautions, just like they did before vaccines were available.”