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How Patients with Cancer Can Navigate COVID-19 for the Holidays

December 19, 2021

With the number of people diagnosed and hospitalized with COVID-19 in Connecticut and the United States surging, Kevin Billingsley, MD, MBA, Chief Medical Officer at Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center, reminds patients and their families to take extra precautions against the virus, especially as plans are being made to gather during the holiday season. A current cancer diagnosis, or extended treatment, can put a patient at risk for serious illness from COVID-19, even if fully vaccinated.

Can I attend holiday parties/events if I am being treated for cancer?

“The most important thing is you need to make sure everyone you’ll be spending time with this holiday season is vaccinated,” said Billingsley. “Try to avoid parties or large crowds, especially if there is no vaccination requirement to attend, wear a mask, especially indoors and continue to wash your hands often and stay socially distanced. And consider a ZOOM option if possible.”

What about vaccines? Do I get a booster shot or third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people can get a booster shot at least six months after completing their primary COVID-19 vaccination series. A booster shot is intended to add further protection against the coronavirus. A third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine is given to people with seriously compromised immune systems, like cancer patients, as part of their initial vaccine series. This is to give them stronger immunity against the virus since many of these patients undergo serious health procedures, like chemotherapy or a transplant.

“As far as when to get a third dose, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends immunocompromised individuals wait at least 28 days after the second dose is administered before receiving the third dose of an mRNA vaccination series, like the Pfizer or Moderna shots,” said Billingsley.

What about side effects after getting a third shot?

The CDC reports reactions to the booster and third dose have been similar to the second dose of the primary vaccine series. Typically, symptoms include mild to moderate fever, body aches, headaches, and fatigue.

Does the new Omicron variant change the current booster guidelines?

Right now, the Omicron variant isn't changing the booster guidelines, but it does strengthen the need for people to get a booster or third dose. "The data is showing the Omicron variant is more highly transmissible than earlier variants, including the Delta variant,” said Billingsley. “But vaccinated people who test positive for the virus are less likely to be asymptomatic and experience a milder illness.” The expectation is that within the next two weeks, the more transmissible Omicron variant is likely to be the dominant COVID strain in the Northeastern United States. This trend amplifies the importance and urgency of booster vaccinations. If a patient has any questions about staying safe during the holidays, Billingsley recommends talking to their primary care physician or oncologist. A cancer diagnosis shouldn’t mean patients can’t enjoy their holidays. Planning and taking precautions can help make holiday gatherings safer for everyone.

Submitted by Anne Doerr on December 18, 2021