Common Questions About the COVID-19 Outbreak

Written By:ACS Medical Content and News Staff

Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM

This page is reviewed regularly and updated as needed.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a serious impact on many people, including cancer patients, their families, and caregivers. State and local authorities, as well as health officials, continue to adjust their recommendations as the number of COVID-19 cases changes in different parts of the country and as new information becomes available.

What is COVID-19?

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

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).

COVID-19 variants

Over time, viruses such as the one that causes COVID-19 can change (mutate), which can result in new variants of the virus. These variants might have slightly different traits than the original virus – for example, some of them seem to spread more easily and quickly. Several variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have appeared around the world in recent months, and some of these have now been found in the United States.

Much is still unknown about these variants, including how well they can be detected with current COVID-19 tests, how effective the current COVID vaccines will be against them, and how well current COVID treatments will work against them. For the latest information, visit the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.

How does the virus spread?

According to the CDC, the most common way for the virus to spread is during close contact with another person:

  • When somebody who is infected coughs, sneezes, talks, raises their voice (such as when shouting or singing), or even breathes, they can create respiratory droplets that contain the virus.
  • 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.

But there are other ways the virus might spread as well:

  • Some small droplets and particles can linger in the air for minutes to hours. They might travel farther than 6 feet or might remain in the air even after the infected person has left, and they might be able to cause new infections, especially in enclosed spaces that aren’t well ventilated. This form of spread, known as airborne transmission, isn’t thought to be as common as spread through close contact.
  • Respiratory 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, nose, or eyes. However, this is not thought to be a common way for the virus to spread, according to the CDC.

Some people who are infected but do not have symptoms (that is, are asymptomatic) may still be able to spread the virus. Because of this, it’s important that everyone follow the CDC’s and other health departments’ recommendations on how to protect yourself and others.

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

According to the CDC, there are things you can do to help lower the risk of being infected, as well as infecting others.

It’s important to note that the CDC now has different guidance for most people who are fully vaccinated (at least two weeks past their last dose of vaccine). See below for more information.

  • Wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose when around others. (See below for more details.)
  • Avoid close contact – being within 6 feet (about 2 arms' length) of people who don't live in your household, and any people who are sick.
  • Get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is available to you.
  • Avoid crowded indoor spaces such as restaurants, bars, and gyms.
  • Avoid indoor places with poor air circulation that do not allow as much fresh outdoor air as possible.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash, or cough or sneeze into your elbow. Then wash your hands right away.
  • Wash your hands often 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 with unwashed hands, because if you picked up the virus, you could infect yourself by allowing the virus to enter your body. 
  • Stay home (except to get medical care) if you are sick.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe. Always read the directions of the products closely to make sure you are using them correctly. Cleaning and disinfecting products should not be used directly on skin, taken by mouth, or inhaled into the lungs. Disinfecting products, like bleach, should not be used on food.

If you are a cancer patient, survivor, or caregiver, talk to your cancer care team about whether there are any additional precautions you should take. 

People who need medical care might be encouraged to take advantage of telehealth services, if they are available, and "see" their doctors without going in person for an office visit. Medicare has temporarily expanded its coverage of telehealth services. Some health insurance providers are doing the same.

It’s important to keep in mind that some people who are infected with the virus might not have symptoms, but they could still spread the virus to others. Because of this, it’s important that everyone follow the CDC’s recommendations on how to protect yourself and others.

Should I wear a mask?

The CDC recommends that people who have not been fully vaccinated should wear a mask that completely covers the nose and mouth while out in public, especially in places where you might be close to other people. Masks might also be recommended (or required) even for people who have been fully vaccinated in some settings. This might be especially important for people with weakened immune systems.

Cloth masks and gaiters (cloth coverings that wrap around the nose, mouth, and neck) should have at least two layers of fabric and should fit snugly against your face. The CDC does not recommend wearing a mask that has a one-way valve or vent because when you breathe out, it allows droplets to go through the mask and possibly spread the virus. The CDC also does not recommend the use of a face shield alone, without a mask.

The mask is meant to help protect other people, because you could spread the virus if you are infected and don’t have symptoms. At the same time, when someone else wears a mask, it can protect you, too. Together, this can help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Many other authorities and businesses also recommend masks, and some might require them. It is best to check with your local authorities to see if your area has specific guidelines about wearing a mask in public.

It’s important to understand that wearing a mask is not a substitute for social distancing. It’s still very important to stay at least 6 feet away from others who don't live in your household, even while wearing a mask, and to continue to wash your hands frequently.  

Remember to wash your hands before putting on your mask, to not touch your face while wearing the mask, and to wash your hands right after taking it off.

The CDC does not recommend that people in the general public wear surgical or N95 masks. These are in short supply in many areas and should be saved for healthcare workers who need them when caring for people who are sick.

Are there different recommendations for cancer patients and caregivers?

The CDC now has guidance for most people who have been fully vaccinated (at least two weeks past their last vaccine dose), which includes not needing to wear a mask in many settings.

But many people being treated for cancer, especially with treatments like chemotherapy or stem cell (bone marrow) transplants that can weaken the immune system, may not be fully protected even if they are fully vaccinated. Even after vaccination, they may need to continue taking precautions such as wearing masks. If you’re not sure if you or your caregiver should be wearing a mask, contact your doctor or another member of your cancer care team.

What about eye protection?

The CDC recommends the use of eye protection (goggles or face shields) for health care workers (doctors, nurses, technicians, dentists, and others) in certain settings. However, face shields by themselves are not recommended for the general public in place of a mask, as it’s not yet clear how effective they are.

What if I've already gotten a COVID-19 vaccine?

Vaccines that can help protect against COVID-19 are now available. To learn more, see  COVID-19 Vaccines in People With Cancer.

For people who are fully vaccinated (at least two weeks past their last dose of vaccine), the CDC has guidance on things you can now do (such as not needing to wear a mask or socially distance in many settings), as well as what types of precautions you should still be taking. This guidance is being updated regularly, so check the CDC website for details. The CDC guidance may not apply if you have a weakened immune system (such as from cancer or its treatment), so it’s important to talk with your health care provider about which precautions you still need to take.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

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

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chills
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of smell or taste
  • Feeling very tired
  • Headache
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Runny nose

Contact your doctor or local health department 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
  • Constant pain or heaviness in the chest
  • New confusion or being hard to wake up
  • Bluish lips or face

Some people with COVID-19 might have signs or symptoms of blood clots such as bluish toes (also referred to as “COVID toes”), swelling of the lower leg, chest pain, shortness of breath, or stroke symptoms (slurred speech, weakness or numbness of an arm or leg). The reasons for this are being still studied, but it's important to tell your doctor right away if you are having any of these symptoms.

COVID-19 generally does not seem to affect children as much as it does adults, but children can become infected with the coronavirus, and some can even develop serious illness. Just like adults, children who have certain medical conditions are at a higher risk for these severe symptoms. A rare but serious syndrome that is linked to COVID-19 in children, called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), has also been reported. Children with this syndrome can have symptoms such as a fever and rash similar to Kawasaki disease, as well as severe body inflammation, which might be related to the coronavirus. The CDC is keeping track of this syndrome to learn more about it and its relationship to the coronavirus infection.

It’s important to know that some people who are infected with the virus might not have symptoms, but they could still spread the virus to others. Because of this, it’s important that everyone follow the CDC’s recommendations on how to protect yourself and others.

What else do cancer patients and caregivers need to know about COVID-19?

Some cancer patients might be at increased risk of serious infection in general because their immune systems can be 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. 

Doctors are still learning about the possible risks of COVID-19 infection for people with cancer. Avoiding being exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19 is especially important for cancer patients, who might be at higher risk for serious illness if they get infected. This can be particularly true for patients with blood cancers (such as leukemia or lymphoma), getting chemotherapy, long courses of corticosteroids, certain types of immunotherapy, or a stem cell or bone marrow transplant, because their immune systems can be severely weakened by the cancer itself or the treatment.

The pandemic is also affecting the way many people get medical care, including patients with cancer. Depending on the COVID-19 situation where you live, this may mean a delay in getting some types of cancer tests, or even treatments. Some people may need to reschedule appointments.

Cancer care teams are doing the best they can to deliver care to their patients. However, even in these circumstances, it isn’t life as usual. It's important to keep in contact with your cancer care team to determine the best course of action for you. This may involve talking to your care team virtually (online or over the phone) and not physically going to the clinic.

Many clinics and infusion centers have made changes to allow you to come in safely for in-person visits as well as treatment. These might include screening for COVID-19 symptoms ahead of your visit, proper spacing of waiting room and infusion chairs, spacing out appointments to limit the number of people in the waiting room at one time, requiring people to wear a mask, and cleaning all surfaces frequently. It’s important to know who to call to reach your cancer care team to find out how to proceed.

You might have other options for getting your cancer medicines as well. For example, some people might be able to switch to oral medicines instead having to go in for infusions. For some people, another option might be to get infusions of their cancer medicines at home. However, there are safety issues to consider with home infusions, and it’s important to discuss these with your health care team before deciding on getting treatment this way.

The issues with getting cancer treatment and testing during this pandemic are slowly improving, but there will likely continue to be changes in the way cancer patients receive their care.

In the meantime, doctors need to learn more about cancer patients and COVID-19. Registries such as the COVID-19 and Cancer Consortium and studies such as the NCI COVID-19 in Cancer Patients Study are actively collecting data. Early studies from registries in the US and around the world have looked at outcomes for cancer patients who develop COVID-19 with symptoms, as well as if certain anti-cancer treatments change these outcomes. These initial study results are helpful, but it is very important to gather more data and analyze it over a longer time to better understand the effects of COVID-19 on current and former cancer patients. Contact your doctor if you are interested in participating in a registry or study.

Why can’t someone come with me for my doctor visits/treatments?

While some medical visits are now being done online or over the phone, things like physical exams, lab or imaging tests, and treatments (such as surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy) still need to be done in person. 

Many doctor’s offices, treatment centers, hospitals, and other facilities have ‘no visitor’ or 'only one visitor' policies in place, meaning that only the person being treated and/or one visitor is allowed to enter. This is to help protect the people in these places, many of whom might be vulnerable if they were to be infected with COVID-19. 

At the same time, these policies can create a great deal of anxiety for both cancer patients and their loved ones. The caregivers who usually accompany patients are an important source of support for them, and they can often be invaluable in both giving information to the health care team and in helping to make sure that patients understand what’s being told to them.

While it might not be possible for caregivers to attend all of these in-person visits right now, there are still some ways to stay involved and informed about what’s going on:

  • Ask if the patient can have the caregiver on a phone call during the visit so the caregiver can listen to the conversation and ask/answer questions.
  • Ask for a family consult with someone from the health care team after the visit so the caregiver knows what was discussed.
  • Ask if the center might allow more frequent telehealth visits so the caregiver can be present.
  • If you have an online portal, ask if you can submit questions and get answers there.
  • Ask if you can get a copy of the progress note that the healthcare provider writes up after each visit – either a physical copy on the day of the visit or in some other format (for example, via an online portal).

Does health insurance cover COVID-19 testing and care?

You may or may not have out-of-pocket costs if you get tested for COVID-19 or if you need medicines or other care to treat it. You’ll need to check with your health insurance company about coverage. Here are some tips and resources to get you started:

Should people still get screened for cancer during this pandemic?

In many places affected by the pandemic, elective medical procedures, including cancer screening, were put on hold to conserve medical resources and reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 in healthcare settings. Many states and other authorities have begun to re-open businesses and ease restrictions. Likewise, many health systems are scheduling cancer screening tests and exams again. So, what should you do if you’re due (or overdue) for a cancer screening?

Decisions about getting screened depend on many factors, and they may not be the same for every person. Some important things to consider include your risk of getting a certain type of cancer, how long it’s been since you were last screened for it, how common COVID-19 is in your community, and your age and overall health.

Talk to your health care provider about the risks and benefits for you of being screened now, and whether or not it might make sense to postpone it at this time. Remember that cancer screening can save lives, so it's important to not just forget about it. Getting back on track with cancer screening should still be a priority.

For more information, see Cancer Screening During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

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. Do not put off getting medical care if you have signs or symptoms that might be from cancer.

Which people are at higher risk for serious illness if they get COVID-19?

According to the CDC, the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, with older adults at highest risk. People with certain medical conditions are also at increased risk. This includes:

The CDC says that people with a history of cancer may be at increased risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19, so it is a good idea to talk with your doctor about your situation.

Can I get COVID-19 from a blood transfusion?

According to the American Red Cross, there is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be transmitted through a blood transfusion.

Donating blood is still possible for those who are healthy and feel well, and it’s greatly needed, according to the Red Cross. The COVID-19 outbreak and resulting social distancing has led to canceled blood drives and dramatic blood shortages in many parts of the country.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has information on donating blood and other things you can do to help during this pandemic.

Can I get tested to see if I’m infected (or was infected in the past)?

Tests for the virus that causes COVID-19 can be done on samples taken by swabbing inside the nose or throat or on saliva (spit) samples. The testing field is changing rapidly, as the FDA continues to allow new tests onto the market. But not everyone needs to be tested for COVID-19.

The CDC has issued guidance on who should consider being tested. This is based on things like:

  • If the person is having symptoms
  • If the person has had close contact with someone known to have COVID-19
  • If the person is likely to be exposed to the virus (as is the case for many health care workers)
  • If the person is in the hospital or is at higher risk for complications if they’re infected

If you are having symptoms that might be from COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone who has it, call your doctor or health department to discuss whether you need to be tested.

Testing is also available in some areas without the need for a doctor’s order. If you feel you should be tested, your state or local health department may have information on testing places available in your area.

The results of your test might change what you need to do (such as isolating yourself from other people if the test is positive), but they might not change your treatment. For example, if you have mild (or no) symptoms, you may not need treatment even if the test is positive.

If you do get tested and are negative for COVID-19, it doesn’t guarantee that you are not infected, as testing is not always 100% accurate. It also doesn't mean that you can’t be infected at a later date. It’s still important to do what you can to lower your risk of infection, such as getting a COVID vaccine and taking other appropriate precautions.

Are at-home tests an option?

For most of the COVID-19 tests in use, the samples need to be obtained by a health care professional. But for some tests the samples can be collected at home:

  • Most at-home tests use swabs to collect samples from inside the nose
  • Some tests use samples of saliva

With most at-home tests, once the samples are collected, they need to be shipped to a lab for the actual testing, so the results won’t be available right away. The FDA has also authorized some at-home tests that do not need to be sent to a lab, and that give results within a short amount of time.

Many at-home tests still require a doctor’s order before they can be done, but some newer tests can be done without the need for a doctor’s order.

What about antibody (serology) tests?

These tests look at a person’s blood for specific antibodies (immune system proteins) that would show that the person has been exposed and had an immune response to the virus. Antibody tests do not look for the virus itself, so they can’t be used to tell if someone is currently infected. They can only tell if a person has been exposed to the virus at some point.

It's not clear how useful the results of antibody testing are at this time. While many different antibody tests are now being used, the results from some of them might not be as accurate as others. And even with an accurate test result, experts aren’t yet sure if having a positive test means that you can’t be infected again.

The FDA has more information about the different types of COVID-19 tests now in use.

What about vaccines for COVID-19?

Vaccines to help protect against COVID-19 are available in the United States, although the supply may be limited in some areas. The CDC recommends that anyone 12 years of age and older be offered the vaccines.

To learn more, see COVID-19 Vaccines in People With Cancer.

Do I still need to take precautions if I get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The COVID-19 vaccines are still being studied, as there are things we don’t yet know about them. For example, researchers are still trying to determine how long the COVID-19 vaccines will help protect against the virus. And while the vaccines can clearly lower the risk of getting serious disease from COVID, it’s not yet clear how well they can prevent the spread of the virus to others.

For people who are fully vaccinated (at least two weeks past their last dose of vaccine), the CDC has guidance on things you can now do (such as not needing to wear a mask or socially distance in many settings), as well as what types of precautions you should still be taking. This guidance is being updated regularly, so check the CDC website for details. The CDC guidance may not apply if you have a weakened immune system (such as from cancer or its treatment), so it’s important to talk with your health care provider about which precautions you still need to take.

Are there medicines to treat COVID-19?

Not everyone infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 needs to be treated. But if treatment is needed, several different drugs (or combinations of drugs) might be used, depending on how sick a person is, how old they are, and other factors. These treatments can be used in most people, including people with cancer.

Some of these drugs work by targeting the virus that causes COVID-19. Examples include:

  • Remdesivir (Veklury) 
  • Bamlanivimab and etesevimab
  • Casirivimab and imdevimab (REGEN-COV)
  • Sotrovimab 

Some drugs work by helping to reduce inflammation in the body. (Inflammation can lead to some of the more severe symptoms of COVID-19.) Examples of such drugs include:

  • Baricitinib 
  • Tocilizumab 
  • Corticosteroids, such as dexamethasone and prednisone

People who have fully recovered from COVID-19 have antibodies against the virus in the liquid part of their blood (known as plasma). Treatment with this plasma (known as convalescent plasma) might be helpful in some people with COVID-19.

Many other drugs that might help treat COVID-19 or its symptoms are now being studied as well.

Can any medicines lower the risk of COVID-19 infection?

In addition to being used to treat COVID-19 (as noted above), the monoclonal antibody drugs, REGEN-COV and bamlanivimab with etesevimab, can be used to lower the risk of infection in some people who have been exposed to the virus. This includes people ages 12 and older who are at high risk for severe COVID-19 (including hospitalization or death), and who either aren’t fully vaccinated or aren’t likely to have an adequate immune response to the vaccine, such as people with weakened immune systems.

While this type of treatment can help prevent COVID-19 if a person has already been exposed to the virus, it should not be used in people who haven't been exposed. 

It’s important to note that people should not rely on this type of treatment instead of getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

What about chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine?

The drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are already used to treat malaria and some other conditions. Some doctors have tried them in certain patients with COVID-19. The FDA has cautioned against the use of these drugs to treat COVID-19 unless a person is taking part in a clinical trial. According to the FDA, “Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have not been shown to be safe and effective for treating or preventing COVID-19.” Clinical trials are still needed for doctors to truly know if these drugs are safe and effective.

What about ivermectin?

The drug ivermectin is approved to treat parasitic worms and some other conditions in humans. It is also approved for use in animals to prevent heartworm or to treat certain parasites. Some doctors have tried ivermectin in certain patients with COVID-19. The FDA has cautioned against the use of these drugs to prevent or treat COVID-19 unless a person is taking part in a clinical trial. Additional testing is needed to know if this drug might be helpful in preventing or treating COVID-19.

What about dietary supplements or over-the-counter treatments?

Despite claims now appearing online and in social media, it’s important to know that there are no supplements or over-the-counter (non-prescription) treatments available online or in stores that have been proven to prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has a list of mythbusters to debunk some claims you may have heard about how the new coronavirus may be transmitted or treated.  

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

This article was first published on March 3, 2020.

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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