Common Questions About the New Coronavirus Outbreak

Written By:Miriam Falco
illustration showing a microscopic view of the coronavirus

Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM

The outbreak of the new coronavirus disease, called COVID-19, is having a serious impact on many people, including cancer patients, their families, and caregivers, especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has spread to all 50 states and around the globe. 

Cancer patients are among those at high risk of serious illness from an infection because their immune systems are often weakened by cancer and its treatments. Most people who were treated for cancer in the past (especially if it was years ago) are likely to have normal immune function, but each person is different. It's important that all cancer patients and survivors, whether currently in treatment or not, talk with a doctor who understands their situation and medical history. 

It's also important that both patients and their caregivers take precautions to lower their risk of getting COVID-19. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has specific recommendations for people at risk for serious illness, including COVID-19 infection.

Health officials are recommending people stay at home as much as possible, including working and schooling from home to slow the spread of the virus.

While the news about this outbreak is changing daily, even hourly, knowing some basic facts about what can and cannot be done to prevent getting sick can be very empowering. 

How can I protect myself and others from getting COVID-19?

According to the CDC and WHO, there are things all of us can do to help lower the risk of being infected (and infecting others):

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds because it’s one of the best ways to kill germs on your hands and prevent the spread of germs to others. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth because if you picked up the virus, you could infect yourself by allowing the virus to enter your body. 
  • Avoid close contact – being within 6 feet - from people who are sick, especially those who are coughing or sneezing.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash, or cough or sneeze into your elbow.
  • Avoid shaking hands.
  • Stay at home as much as possible and avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Older adults are encouraged to take advantage of telehealth services and "see" their doctors without going in person for an office visit. Medicare has temporarily expanded its coverage of telehealth services. Other health insurance providers may be doing the same.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipes.
  • Avoid non-essential travel. Check with the authorities in your area or state. If you were planning on going outside the US, the CDC recommends that travelers avoid all non-essential international travel.
  • If you need to go out, it's best to check the CDC's guidance about protecting yourself and others. If you are a cancer patient, survivor, or caregiver, talk to the cancer care team about whether there are any additional precautions needed. 

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

The most common symptoms of COVID-19, which may appear 2-14 days after exposure, are:

  • Fever of at least 100.4o F (38o C)
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

Some patients may have diarrhea or nausea before these symptoms occur.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Body aches and pains
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of smell or taste

Contact your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

If you or the person you’re caring for has any of the following serious signs and symptoms of COVID-19, get medical attention right away:

  • Trouble breathing or shortness of breath
  • Constant pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or being hard to wake
  • Bluish lips or face

What else do cancer patients need to know about the coronavirus?

The COVID-19 outbreak is still new, so doctors do not have a lot of specific information on this coronavirus for cancer patients. But they do have a lot of information regarding the risk of infections in general for cancer patients.

Doctors and health officials agree the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus, which is especially important for cancer patients because they are at higher risk for serious illness, if they get infected, particularly patients who are in active chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant patients. That’s because their immune systems can be severely weakened by the treatment.

The CDC is now recommending that health care facilities and doctors prioritize urgent and emergency visits and procedures for the coming several weeks.

“We're headed for a time when there will be significant disruptions in the care of patients with cancer,” says Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society. “For some it may mean a delay in having elective surgery. For others it may be delaying preventive care or adjuvant chemotherapy that’s meant to keep cancer from returning.” You may need to reschedule appointments.

Lichtenfeld says cancer care teams are going to do to the best they can to deliver care to those most in need. However, even in those circumstances, it won’t be life as usual. “It will require patience on everyone’s part as we go through this pandemic,” Lichtenfeld adds. “It is important to maintain contact with your cancer care team to determine the best course of action for you. This may involve non-urgent follow up visits or talking to your care team virtually and not physically going to the clinic. So, it’s important to know who to call to reach your cancer care team to find out how to proceed.”

Lichtenfeld adds, “These circumstances will take months to resolve, and even then, we will continue to have changes in the way cancer patients receive their treatment.”

Should people still get screened for cancer during this pandemic?

Health officials are urging everyone to stay home as much as possible to further reduce the risk of being exposed to COVID-19. What should you do if you’re due for a cancer screening?

According to Dr. Richard Wender, Chief Cancer Control Officer for the American Cancer Society, “the American Cancer Society recommends that no one should go to a health care facility for routine cancer screening at this time." This means if you're due for your screening to detect breast, colon, cervix, or lung cancer, postpone your appointment for the near future. “Remember, these screening tests save lives. When restrictions lift, it's important to reschedule any screening test that you're due to receive,” says Wender. "Getting back on track with cancer screening should be a high priority," he adds.

Screening tests are different from tests your doctor might order if you have symptoms that could be from cancer. If you’re having symptoms you’re concerned about, contact your health care provider about the best course of action for you at this time.

What is a coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause common colds, as well as more serious respiratory diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The first coronavirus was discovered in the 1960s.

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is the name of the illness caused by a new coronavirus that has led to a large outbreak, which was first reported in China in December 2019.  The name of this new coronavirus is “SARS-CoV-2.”

Principal Deputy Director of the CDC, Dr. Anne Schuchat, says this new COVID-19 illness, referred to by some people only as COVID, is “spread in a similar way to the common cold or to influenza." 

How serious is the COVID-19 illness?

“The vast majority of individuals who contract the novel coronavirus, they will experience mild to moderate symptoms and their treatment will be to remain at home, treating their symptoms the way they would a severe cold or the flu,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health in a statement. “For some individuals, a smaller percentage, especially those who may be medically fragile, they will require medical attention including possibly hospitalization.”

The CDC and WHO say that based on the cases they’ve seen so far, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are at greater risk for serious complications if they are infected with this new virus. The CDC says possible risk factors for developing severe COVID-19 illness may include, but are not limited to, older age and underlying chronic medical conditions such as lung disease, cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes, and pregnancy. However, it's important to note that healthy, younger people are not immune from this disease. Many are being diagnosed and some are being hospitalized.

How does the virus spread?

According to the CDC, the virus spreads mainly from person-to-person:

  • When somebody who is infected and coughs or sneezes, the virus can be spread in respiratory droplets.
  • These droplets might reach the mouths or noses of people who are in close contact (within about 6 feet), which could lead to an infection.

The droplets can also land on surfaces, which people might then touch. This could potentially lead to an infection if a person then touches their mouth or nose.


The WHO says “studies suggest that coronaviruses (including preliminary information on the COVID-19 virus) may survive on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days… If you think a surface may be infected, clean it with simple disinfectant to kill the virus and protect yourself and others."

Can I get COVID-19 from a blood transfusion?

According to the American Red Cross, there is no evidence that this new coronavirus can be transmitted through a blood transfusion.

Is there a vaccine against the new coronavirus?

There are no vaccines available yet against the virus that causes COVID-19. Several pharmaceutical companies are working on vaccines. The first clinical trial for a COVID-19 vaccine just started in mid-March. However, it will likely be at least a year or a year and half before a vaccine might be available, according to the NIH’s Fauci.   

Are there medicines to treat COVID-19?

At this time, there are no FDA-approved drugs to treat COVID-19, although some medicines might be helpful in treating symptoms from the disease.

The drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which are already used to treat malaria and some other conditions, are being studied as possible treatments for COVID-19. Because they are already available to treat other diseases, some doctors are trying them in certain patients with COVID-19. But for doctors to truly know that these drugs are safe and effective for use against COVID-19, they still need to be studied in clinical trials. These medicines can sometimes have serious side effects, so they should only be taken under the supervision of a doctor.

Several new drugs that might help treat COVID-19 are also being studied in clinical trials.

Despite claims now appearing online and in social media, it’s important to know that there are no tests or any types of supplements or other treatments available online or in stores that have been proven to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19.

The WHO has a list of myth busters to debunk some claims you may have heard about how the new coronavirus may be transmitted or treated.  

Bottom line: Scientists are learning more about the virus every day, and health experts are updating their information daily.

For the latest information, including more detailed responses to some common questions, please visit the following websites:

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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