COVID-19 and stem cell transplants: What you should know

By now, most cancer patients and their caregivers know the basic precautions they can take to minimize the risk of contracting the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19). They may also have determined whether it’s safe to travel for treatment, and learned what protocols MD Anderson has put in place to protect them once they’re here. But how does all of this affect patients who’ve had stem cell transplants? Are there any special considerations they should be taking into account while going about their daily lives? We spoke with our stem cell transplant chair Richard Champlin, M.D., for insight into this unique patient population. Here’s what he had to say. What are the risks of COVID-19 for stem cell transplant recipients? These patients are more sensitive to infection than any other group, because the treatment itself destroys their own immune system, and replaces it with a donor’s. This is by design, of course, but it generally takes them a whole year to recover. And during that time, these patients have a severe immune deficiency, so even regular respiratory viruses — such as colds — are a problem. We’re expecting a surge in cases of COVID-19 in the next few weeks, making it a major risk for our patients. Fortunately, not many stem cell transplant recipients have been infected with COVID-19 yet, but it’s going to happen more as the virus moves through the general population. What are the most critical times for stem cell transplant recipients to avoid infection? The first three months after a transplant are the most critical period. That’s why we have very strict rules about our patients...