Worrying is part of the parenting handbook, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s 100% normal if you’re nervous about your child getting the virus. It’s a fear that parents across the world share.
While the thought of their child getting COVID-19 can be scary for any parent, it can be especially concerning if your child has cancer or another condition that has weakened their immune system.
There is a lot that’s unknown about COVID-19, particularly how it affects people with different underlying medical conditions. But we do know the basics of how the virus may affect children with immunocompromising conditions like cancer — and what you can do to keep your child safe.
Here are 7 things to know about COVID-19 if your child has cancer or is immunocompromised.
1. Children with cancer may be more likely to get COVID-19.
Cancer and cancer treatments take a toll on the immune system. Because their immune systems aren’t quite as strong, kids with cancer are at a higher risk of getting any infection — and COVID-19 is no exception.
While the infection risk may be higher in children with cancer, the infection itself looks the same. From what we’ve seen so far, symptoms or complications in children who have COVID-19 and cancer are not different than those seen in children who do not have cancer.
2. Cancer survivors are generally not at higher risk of getting COVID-19 — but there’s still reason for caution.
For the most part, cancer survivors who are in remission — signs and symptoms are reduced or completely gone — aren’t at higher risk than people without a history of cancer. That’s because their immune systems have likely strengthened and gotten back on track.
That being said — every patient is different. Some survivors still have slightly weakened immune systems or late effects from prior treatments, such as lung or kidney problems. In these cases, they may have a higher risk of complications if they get COVID-19.
Even if your child is no longer undergoing treatment and has been cancer-free for years, you can always reach out to their oncologist or primary care provider if you have any concerns.
3. Kids with cancer need to be extra careful about prevention.
Being vigilant about infection protection is more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If your child has cancer, you’re probably already an expert in infection prevention — avoiding large crowds, staying away from people who are sick, washing hands frequently, and wearing a mask. Precautions now are the same as they were before COVID-19. Keep doing what you’ve been doing and being the expert that you are.”
— Jill Beck, MD, Hematology and Oncology Physician at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center
Also, remember that just because many businesses are opening up again and resuming activity, that isn’t an all-clear. There is still a risk of getting the virus — including in Nebraska where the number of cases is still increasing (as of May 19) — especially among children who are immunocompromised.
4. Children with cancer and suspected COVID-19 should get tested.
Kids with cancer need to be followed a little more closely during this time. At the moment (DATE), Children’s Hospital & Medical Center is mainly testing children with severe symptoms — not those who are asymptomatic or have mild to moderate symptoms.
However, there is an exception for kids with cancer. If your child has been exposed or is showing mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19, it’s important that they get tested.
Call the Children’s COVID-19 helpline at 402-955-3200 to learn more about getting tested. Be sure to tell the operator that your child has cancer. If you run into any roadblocks, call our office at 402-955-3950
5. Keep up your child’s essential care.
With so much publicity about how infectious COVID-19 is, it’s perfectly natural to want to keep your child away from a hospital where someone with the virus could be getting treated. However, it’s extremely important to have your child keep up with their essential care. The risk of missing life-saving care, such as chemotherapy, is too big.
For other appointments, it may be okay to delay. We’ll assess each appointment on a case-by-case basis to make sure that your child doesn’t miss out on necessary care, while also ensuring they aren’t putting themselves at risk of getting COVID-19 unnecessarily.
6. We are here to keep your child safe — even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s normal to be a little anxious when coming to the hospital right now, but remember that just as you’re an expert in protecting your immunocompromised child, we’re experts at keeping people safe.
At Children’s — like hospitals across the country — we have amped up our already rigorous handwashing, cleaning, disinfecting, and infection prevention protocols. Everyone in the hospital, whether they are a patient (over 2 years old), visitor, or staff member, is required to wear a mask. Patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 are being treated in specific areas of the hospital that are separated from other patients.
We’ve also started offering virtual visits over video chat. This keeps people at home, decreasing the risk of the virus entering our facilities.
If your child has cancer, some virtual visits may not be a possibility. We may need to assess your child in person or run tests that can only be performed in the hospital. If you’re interested in a virtual visit, call our office at (402) 955-3950.
7. It’s not just cancer that can weaken a child’s immune system.
Some children have weakened immune systems that aren’t related to cancer. They may have autoimmune disorders — conditions where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in the body and makes it harder to fight infection — such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or type 1 diabetes. Or, their immune systems can be weakened due to certain heart conditions, viruses like HIV, or if they have had an organ transplant.
People with these conditions aren’t necessarily at a higher risk of getting COVID-19. However, they may be at a higher risk of having complications.
If your child has any condition that leaves them immunocompromised, the advice is the same as it is for children with cancer. Keep up with preventive measures like social distancing, frequent handwashing, disinfecting surfaces, and avoiding large crowds.
This can be a scary time for both parents and their children. And just as we are with your child’s cancer care, we’re here with you on every step of the journey.
Call the Children’s COVID-19 help line at 402-955-3200 if your child needs to be tested. With any other questions or concerns about COVID-19 and cancer, call the Hematology & Oncology office at 402-955-3950.