Cancer doctor shares tips on lowering risk of COVID-19 breakthrough infections

Dr. Jeffrey Metts, chief of staff of Cancer Treatment Centers of America Atlanta, says the death of General Colin Powell of a breakthrough COVID-19 infection comes at a time cases are dropping, and many Americans who are immunocompromised are feeling what Metts calls "alert fatigue."

"We're tired of being in the house," Dr. Metts says.  "We're tired of not getting outside.  We're tired of, 'I've done everything right and I've followed all the core concepts, and yet something like this can still happen?'   It's a reality, that yes, it can."

General Powell, who was 84 and fully vaccinated, contracted the coronavirus while undergoing treatment for multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that can weaken the immune system and render the COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccines less effective.

Powell was reportedly scheduled to get a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week, before he fell ill.

As of October 12, 2021, the CDC reported more than 187 million Americans had been fully vaccinated, the CDC says, there have been 7,178 deaths and 24,717 hospitalizations from breakthrough infections.

The 85% of deaths after breakthrough infections were in Americans age 65 and older, according to the agency.

Still, Dr. Metts says, there are a lot of variables cancer patients, older adults, and those with weakened immune systems can control to lower their risks of being exposed to the coronavirus.

First, Metts says, get vaccinated.

If you are eligible for a booster, get that, too, he says.

Dr. Metts says sticking with a few core prevention basics can also lower your risk, like wearing a mask in indoor public settings, washing your hands frequently and physical distancing.

"That social distancing is where you can really get smart," Dr. Metts says.  "It's how can you reduce your risk of it happening, and a lot of that is exposure."

With the holidays around the corner, and the winter travel season beginning, Metts recommends people with underlying health conditions talk to their health care team before making travel plans.

"There are plenty of patients out there who have cancer who are in a very strong immune state," he says.  "They've completed their treatment, they've done well, and they've had their vaccine and booster.  For them, they're in a much better position versus someone who might be under active therapy."

For those undergoing treatment or taking medication than can supress their immune system, Metts recommends thinking about ways they can lower their risks of exposure to someone who might be infected.

"They want to look at the way they are traveling, the risks they are taking, where can they prevent risks from happening," Dr. Metts says.

Those in active treatment may want to choose a destination they can travel to by car, rather than flying.

For Thanksgiving, he says, they may want to choose to attend a smaller gathering with a select group of people they know are vaccinated.

"When you're coming into contact with hundreds and thousands of people, you don't know where they've been," Metts says.  "You don't know who is vaccinated and who's not."