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Staying the Course in COVID-19

Dr. Tsue and Dr. Sun
On March 19, 2020, the United States declared coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) a national emergency. Rapidly changing circumstances immediately put a strain on the resources of hospitals, community practices and health systems. For the hundreds of thousands of people undergoing cancer treatment and/or participating in a cancer clinical trial, it was a time of great uncertainty and fear.
Terry Tsue, MD, FACS, vice president and physician-in-chief at The University of Kansas Cancer Center, knew we had to act nimbly to ensure critical staff and resources were in place. Cancer does not wait.

“We immediately adopted a SWAT team mentality. I was on the phone weekly with physicians and leaders at other National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers, some of whom were in the country’s COVID-19 ‘hot spots.’ We shared best practices, policies and other ways we were dealing with the ever-changing landscape,” Dr. Tsue said. “Protecting our uniquely vulnerable patient population remains a top focus.”

Scientists quickly mobilized, too. The cancer center’s multidisciplinary research infrastructure, internationally renowned experts, as well as a proven track record of conducting clinical studies came into play to support the pandemic response. Early on, cancer center patients could opt-in to a study that provided a COVID-19 diagnostic test at no cost to the patient. The study led by Weijing Sun, MD, FACP, director of the division of medical oncology and associate director for clinical research, preceded any standard of care guidelines around asymptomatic testing.

“From conception of the clinical trial to writing the protocol to testing the patient, the study was up and running in just nine working days,” Dr. Sun said. “That would not be possible at any other institution in our region.”

Additional COVID-19 research efforts quickly followed suit, including a clinical trial effort investigating a drug as an effective treatment for cytokine storm syndrome, an overaggressive immune response that leads to respiratory failure in COVID-19 patients. The cancer center also joined multiple national registries tracking how the virus affects individuals with cancer.

Reimagining resources

The cancer center’s catchment area spans 92,000 square miles, and people from across the region travel to Kansas City to receive their cancer care and access innovative clinical trials. To reduce patient risk of exposure, physicians leveraged a technology that’s been used by the cancer center’s outreach network, Masonic Cancer Alliance, for years — telemedicine. At one point, as much as 40 percent of all cancer visits took place virtually.

“Due to the visitor limit, many of my patients’ relatives have joined us in the clinic via phone and video. We have to be creative in terms of involving other decision-makers and caregivers when they can’t sit next to their loved one,” Dr. Tsue said.

Staff members stepped outside their comfort zone, volunteering to take temperatures at main entries, a precaution adopted well before other regional cancer centers. Each week, staff volunteers filled 156 four-hour shifts, ensuring each door was staffed with a temperature monitor.

“Throughout the crisis, our staff consistently put others before themselves,” Dr. Tsue said. “Cancer is such a personal disease, and it was important we not lose the human aspect of our care.”

From conception of the clinical trial to writing the protocol to testing the patient, the study was up and running in just nine working days. That would not be possible at any other institution in our region. Dr. Weijing Sun

Persisting in a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually every aspect of cancer care and research, but resilience and ingenuity abound. Our physicians, nurses and support staff approach challenges creatively in the clinic and scientists continue to leverage their knowledge of cancer to decode COVID-19. With such powerful research capabilities, and as one of only 71 cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute, it is KU Cancer Center’s moral duty to support the pandemic response.

“The virus was new to everybody. Thanks to our deep bench of multidisciplinary experts, we were able to use our knowledge from previous viruses and other diseases to swiftly adapt to this new disease,” Dr. Sun said. “I am proud of the leaders and staff at our center, who showed a steadfast commitment to tackle this global challenge, both in the lab and in the clinic.” 

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