People who have COVID-19 after immune-compromising cancer treatments may carry the virus longer than others — and longer than previously believed. According to data on a small group of patients, published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, this type of patient may shed detectable virus for up to two months after infection. This could mean that these patients continue to be contagious during that time. The new study underscores the fact that COVID-19 is still a relatively new virus and researchers continue to learn more about it every day.
“The data in this study, while small, suggests that isolation of immunocompromised cancer patients positive for COVID-19 may need to be longer than currently recommended given that we show that they can shed live virus for up to 60 days,” Esther Babady, PhD, tells SurvivorNet. Babady, a microbiologist and director of Clinical Microbiology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, co-authored the study.
Immunocompromised Patients with COVID-19 May Be Contagious Longer
For the study, researchers tracked 20 immunocompromised cancer patients who tested positive for COVID-19. They took repeated nasal swabs from the group. Out of the 20 patients, three continued to shed detectable virus for 25 days or more. One of those three was still shedding virus at 61 days.
But how could the virus stick around for so long in immunocompromised people?
“The immune system of these patients is not functioning at full force because of either their disease or their treatment, which results in an inability of the body to clear the virus,” Babady says.
What If You’re on Immune-Suppressing Cancer Treatments?
Current CDC guidelines say that immunocompromised people are not likely to be contagious for more than 20 days after their symptoms start. But this study suggests that it’s possible.
If you are receiving immune-suppressing treatments for cancer, these study results underscore the importance of avoiding COVID-19 in the first place. Follow all federal guidelines, which include wearing a mask in public, avoiding large gatherings or crowds, staying six feet away from others, and washing your hands frequently.
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