During the holiday season, immunocompromised people, particularly patients with cancer, may have an increased risk for getting COVID-19. An expert shares tips on how to have safe and enjoyable family gatherings.
Patients with cancer and other immunocompromised people may worry that increased gatherings with family and friends for the holidays can expose them to COVID-19, so one expert emphasized the importance of protecting oneself through masking and vaccinations, among other tactics.
In an interview with CURE®, Robyn Brumble, a registered nurse and the director of scientific affairs and research at the CLL Society, discussed the current concerns faced by immunocompromised people during the holiday season and shared how they can discuss COVID-19 precautions with loved ones.
New Variants Bring Concern
Patients with cancer are concerned about this holiday season because, according to Brumble, because current COVID-19 variants have gotten better at evading protections that immunocompromised people have relied on before.
“(New COVID-19 variants) BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are growing immensely and have a really large growth advantage over what was previously known as BA.5, as the dominant (COVID-19) variant”, explained Brumble. “(These variants) have outsmarted Evusheld, which is a pre-exposure prophylaxis that was developed specifically for the immunocompromised community (to protect against COVID-19 exposure).”
Brumble added that the immunocompromised community includes patients undergoing active cancer treatment and even those who are not undergoing treatment since they are “immunocompromised by default because they have a cancer of the immune system.”
What Patients Can Do to Keep Safe
Brumble gave specific steps for patients to follow to keep safe from infection.
“It's time to go back to basics,” Brumble explained. “It’s time to remember all those things that we taught (patients) in the beginning. It’s definitely time to mask up again. … Make sure that that mask is a good mask, not a cloth mask or a surgical mask; it needs to be a KN-95 and preferably a well-fitted N-95 (mask) for the immunocompromised. (And) making sure that (patients are) up to date on their bivalent vaccine.”
The other way immunocompromised people can stay safe during the holidays is by having discussions with loved ones before any large gatherings.
Brumble advised patients to request all loved ones to test for COVID-19 before they gather, ensure increased ventilation in rooms, mask indoors as much as possible and closely monitor for symptoms such as sore throat and headaches.
Keeping Calm When Carrying COVID-19 Conversations
When requesting loved ones follow these requests, Brumble urged patients to empathize with their perspective.
“Sometimes just asking to engage in a conversation and sharing the reason that it's important to you personally can be a little bit more effective than forcing a conversation upon someone.” Brumble said.
Brumble also stressed the importance of not getting emotional when discussing COVID-19 precautions with family members, especially if they are not receptive to the topic.
“Just (try to) remain as calm as possible when you're talking (to friends and family),” Brumble instructed patients. “If you're sensing that the individual is not interested in discussing your health care needs, then sometimes it's going to, unfortunately, fall on you to personally make some tough decisions surrounding what level of risk that you're willing to accept when you get together and how much you’re going to engage over the holidays socially.”
However, if a person’s loved one is open to discussing the topic, Brumble encouraged patients to ease into the conversations. “Perhaps saying ‘I would really love to be able to spend time with you, but I’m curious if you’ve heard yet about the things that have been changing in the past couple of weeks that are going to potentially affect immunocompromised individuals.’,” she said.
She gave an example of how to start the conversation: “It’s important to relate to them and say, ‘You know what? I'm tired of (COVID-19) too. You’re absolutely right.’ And trying to come at it more with a phrase that says, ‘I'd love a chance to talk to you about how I can still see you. I love you and I want to get together with family in the safest way possible over the holidays.’”
After that, she encouraged patients to explain their requests to their loved ones.
“Have those conversations in a way that aren’t emotionally charged, but they’re just factual,” Brumble advised, “(Patients can say,) ‘I’m immunocompromised. I’m at a much higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 disease and possibly hospitalization and death If I let my guard down and I get exposed.’”
How Others Can Be Supportive
Brumble reminded non-immunocompromised people to have empathy for people concerned about COVID-19.“Your friends and family that are immunocompromised really want to be around you,” Brumble stressed.
She recommended being more proactive with COVID-19 precautions so that patients don’t have to be “the bad guy(s)” and stressed the importance of getting vaccinated.
“One of the best things you can do for your family member is to get vaccinated to provide a cloud of protection around them when you're around them” Brumble said.
For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.