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February 18, 2021 - One hundred and thirty organizations, cancer centers, and other institutions sent a letter to President Joe Biden and his administration, as well as other leading public health officials at state health departments to underscore the need to provide patients with cancer and survivors of cancer with priority access to a coronavirus disease 2019 vaccine.
One hundred and thirty organizations, cancer centers, and other institutions sent a letter to President Joe Biden and his administration, as well as other leading public health officials at state health departments to underscore the need to provide patients with cancer and survivors of cancer with priority access to a coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccine, according to a press release issued by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).1
“We fully support your COVID-19 vaccination plan that calls for broadening access and vaccinating as many Americans as rapidly as possible,” the letter states. “However, we are compelled to underscore the urgency of prioritizing access to a COVID-19 vaccine for patients with active cancer and survivors of cancer.”
Patients with cancer are at high risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19, and due to the need for frequent in-person care while receiving treatment, they could be at increased risk for exposure to the virus, as well.2 Additionally, survivors of cancer have a higher probability of infection and death from the virus compared with the general population.
"Patients with cancer have immune systems that are compromised based on the treatment that they're getting, and if they get COVID-19, they're not only more likely to experience serious disease, but to continuously shed the virus because their immune systems are slower to make protective antibodies," John Carethers, MD, of the University of Michigan. "They're going back forth to the hospital, and to caregivers, and could theoretically be super-spreaders."
Results from a retrospective case-control analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, patients with cancer who are diagnosed with COVID-19 are more likely to require hospitalization (47.46%) than those without cancer who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 (24.26%).3 Additionally, according to an article published by the AACR COVID-19 and Cancer Task Force, COVID-19 fatality rates for patients with cancer were double that of those without cancer.4
“Many Americans are delaying regular doctor appointments that could lead to a diagnosis of cancer, meaning that we are likely to see a higher number of patients diagnosed when their cancers are at a more advanced stage,” the letter says. “Without the protection offered by a vaccine, these patients are not only at risk of being infected with COVID-19, but a COVID-19 diagnosis could also severely impact their available treatment options.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recognized that patients with cancer are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 infection,5 although many states are broadening and simplifying the groups eligible for vaccination to speed up distribution.6
“It seems like the states just opened things up completely, and next thing you know, we opened the floodgates to everyone being eligible to get the vaccine,” Jon Retzlaff, the chief policy officer for AACR, told OncLive. “In a time of limited supply, this is very problematic for these high-risk patients who really needed to get the vaccine. As such, it has really become an issue of extreme importance to the entire cancer care community.”
Moreover, the letter notes that while widespread, rapid vaccination is a worthy goal, the currently limited supply of vaccines means that many who are at high risk for severe illness and death from the virus, may continue to wait for many months if they are not provided with priority access.
Earlier this year, the COVID-19 Vaccine Committee of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network released published guidance, which also recommended that patients with active cancer, or with active, recent, or planned cancer treatment, as well as their care givers, be considered highest priority to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
“We sincerely hope that you and your colleagues in the administration will stress to all State Public Health Departments that patients with active cancer and survivors of cancer must be provided priority access to a lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine,” the letter closes.