Last updated April 1, 2020
If you or one of your loved ones is a UCSF cancer patient, get answers here to important questions about coronavirus (COVID-19), from how to minimize your risk of infection to the safety of our hospitals, when to wear a mask, and what to do if you develop symptoms.
What is novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19)?
COVID-19 was first described in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, and has spread within China and many other countries. COVID-19 refers to the illness caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2.
How does the virus spread?
This virus likely originated from an animal source but is now spreading between people. At this time, it's unclear how easily this virus is spreading between people. When person-to-person spread occurs with other coronaviruses, it mainly happens when an infected person coughs or sneezes and their respiratory droplets come into contact with the eyes, nose or mouth of other people who are nearby, similar to how influenza and other respiratory infections spread.
Can I catch coronavirus from a COVID-19 carrier who is asymptomatic?
Yes, it may be possible to contract coronavirus from someone who does not exhibit symptoms.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19, and how long does it take to develop symptoms?
Patients with this virus have had mild to severe respiratory illness with symptoms that can include the following: new or worsening cough within the last 14 days, shortness of breath, muscle aches or fever.
The majority of patients with COVID-19 are mild. A smaller percentage of cases are severe and can involve pneumonia. Patients who are elderly or have underlying medical conditions seem to be at higher risk for severe infection. It may take up to 14 days for the COVID-19 symptoms to appear.
Who is at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19?
Older adults (60 years and older) and those with serious chronic medical conditions are at higher risk of getting sick from COVID-19. The serious chronic medical conditions can include heart disease, diabetes, lung disease and cancer. Patients who are immunocompromised are also at higher risk.
What does it mean to be immunocompromised?
When the body's white blood cells, which fight infections, are low or do not function well, the body is unable to fight infections effectively. Immunocompromised patients may include patients with cancer and those who are on chemotherapy. It can also include patients with HIV, transplant patients, patients who are on immunosuppressive medication or patients with other known immunodeficiencies.
As a patient with cancer, how much higher is my risk of severe consequences of COVID-19?
A recent Chinese study of patients with cancer who had COVID-19 showed that patients who underwent chemotherapy or surgery in the past month had a higher risk compared to those who had not received recent treatment. The risk appears to be higher in patients with more than one chronic medical condition.
Patients who are undergoing active treatment for cancer are presumably at higher risk than those who are in remission. Patients who are in the first year after stem cell transplantation or CAR T-cell therapy could be at higher risk for complications if they get infected with COVID-19. Those who are beyond one year after transplantation and are still considered to be immunocompromised may remain at an elevated risk for complications.
In what circumstances should I self-quarantine?
If you have any symptoms concerning for – a new or worsening cough within the last 14 days, shortness of breath, muscle aches or fever – you should contact your provider and also self-quarantine. In addition, if you have been in contact with someone who has a known or suspected COVID-19 infection, you should stay home (even if you remain asymptomatic yourself).
How long does coronavirus live on surfaces?
At this time, we do not know. However, some studies indicate that it can live on plastic or cardboard for up to 3 days. But it is susceptible to cleaning agents such as bleach, hydrogen peroxide and alcohol.
What should people at higher risk of serious illness with COVID-19 do?
If you are at higher risk of getting sick from COVID-19, you should:
- Try to ensure that you have a 30-day supply of all medications, and that you request all refills at least 7 days prior to running out.
- Take everyday precautions to keep space between yourself and others.
- When you go out in public, keep away from others.
- Limit close contact (<6 feet) and wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid crowds, cruise travel, and nonessential travel.
- Stay home as much as possible. Watch for symptoms such as a new cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches or fever.
- If you get sick, stay home and call your doctor.
What does close contact mean?
Close contact is defined as:
- being within approximately 6 feet (2 meters) of a COVID-19 case for a prolonged period of time; close contact can occur while caring for, living with, visiting or sharing a health care waiting area or room with a COVID-19 case
– or –
- having direct contact with infectious secretions of a COVID-19 case (e.g., being coughed on)
Should I delay my treatment, surgery or radiation therapy at the Cancer Center?
Decisions on whether or not to postpone cancer treatment need to be made on a patient-by-patient basis with your physician. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact your physician's office.
Will I be safe in the hospital if UCSF Health is treating proven or suspected COVID-19 patients?
UCSF Health cares for patients with complex health conditions and has expertise in treating patients with infections and in infection prevention and control. Our infection prevention practices and protocols are aimed at protecting our faculty, employees and contractors, as well as patients and visitors. Any patient with respiratory symptoms who presents to our clinics is immediately given a mask to wear as a way to contain their respiratory secretions and to prevent spread of infection to others.
What is the Cancer Center doing to protect its patients and staff?
Our Cancer Center teams are contacting each patient prior to their appointment to ask if they have any symptoms such as a new cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches or fever. We also inquire about potential exposure to patients who may have tested positive for COVID-19 and whether there has been any travel history within the last 14 days.
We are also converting in-person visits to telemedicine visits via videoconferencing whenever it is appropriate to do so.
What do I need to do if I have an appointment at the Cancer Center?
You can contact your provider's office to determine if your visit can be converted to a telemedicine visit. If you will present in person, please be aware that we will not be allowing any visitors, except for special circumstances. Please let us know prior to your visit if you have any of the following symptoms: new or worsening cough within the last 14 days, shortness of breath, muscle aches or fever. If you have any of these symptoms, our clinic team will provide you with guidance, but we will ask you to not present to your scheduled appointment.
Can the coronavirus be spread through food, including refrigerated or frozen food?
Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread from person to person through respiratory droplets. Currently, there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food. Before preparing or eating food, it is important to always wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds for general food safety. Throughout the day, wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, or using the bathroom.
It may be possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes.
Should I wear a face mask to prevent COVID-19?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19. You should only wear a mask if a health care professional recommends it. A face mask should be used by people who are showing symptoms or who may have COVID-19. This is to protect others from the risk of getting infected. The use of face masks is also crucial for health workers and other people who are taking care of someone infected with COVID-19 in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).
What is COVID-19 testing like?
A cotton swab (like a Q-tip but with a longer stick) will be inserted into your nose to obtain a sample of mucus from the sinus cavity to take a sample from your throat. Neither swab should hurt, but they might be uncomfortable enough to trigger a cough or a gag reflex.
The mucus samples will be sent off to a lab. Your doctor's office will call to let you know the results.
Should I be tested for COVID-19?
If you develop symptoms such as fever, cough and/or difficulty breathing, and have been in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19 or have recently traveled from an area with ongoing spread of COVID-19, stay home and call your health care provider. Older patients and individuals who have severe underlying medical conditions or are immunocompromised should contact their health care provider early, even if their illness is mild. If you have severe symptoms, such as persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse, or bluish lips or face, contact your health care provider or emergency room and seek care immediately. Your doctor will determine if you have signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and whether you should be tested.
What should I do if I develop symptoms of respiratory infection?
If you have a new or worsening cough within the last 14 days, shortness of breath, muscle aches or fever, follow the steps below to help limit spread of infection to people in your home and community:
- Call your doctor's office.
- Stay home except to get medical care. You should not go to work, school or public areas.
- Separate yourself at home as much as possible from family and pets.
- Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
- If you have a cough, wear a mask to cover your nose and mouth if you are around other people in your home or in public.
- Wash your hands after touching your face, before eating and after using the bathroom. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid sharing personal household items.
- Clean all high-touch areas every day, such as counters, tabletops, doorknobs, phones and keyboards. Use a household cleaning spray or sanitizing wipe according to the label instructions.
Does UCSF have testing for COVID-19 on-site?
UCSF Health has been actively working to develop on-site testing capacity for patients who are suspected of having the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19. On Monday, March 9, we began providing testing on-site for our hospitalized and emergency department patients, using a rapid polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test developed at UCSF. This system, which offers the same type of test used by the CDC, is now enabling us to evaluate approximately 400 patients per day.
We are now testing patients with symptoms consistent with COVID-19, and especially those with more significant symptoms or certain risks for themselves or others (older age, health care workers, immunocompromised). Testing is prioritized for patients who are hospitalized and those who are immunocompromised and exhibit symptoms concerning for COVID-19 such as a new or worsening cough within the last 14 days, shortness of breath, muscle aches or fever.
Is there treatment for COVID-19?
There are currently no treatments available for COVID-19. In most cases, medications for fever and muscle aches can be used. Patients with more severe symptoms who need to be hospitalized can be managed with supportive medical care.
Is it safe to go to the gym?
We recommend that you avoid going to the gym at this time. You may consider outdoor activities such as walking or hiking to continue to maintain your activity level.
As a cancer patient, is it safe for me to travel by airplane right now?
At this time, we would recommend against traveling by airplane. A compromised immune system can put you at greater risk both for contracting COVID-19 and for developing severe symptoms. Contact your care team by phone or through MyChart for guidance that is tailored specifically to you and your treatment. Your care team can explain the risks and benefits of waiting, so you can make an informed decision together.
How do I get my prescriptions?
Alto Pharmacy delivers prescription medications and can be a resource for patients who may consider avoiding public areas or need to stay home.
Is it OK to use valet parking, ride-sharing services and rental cars?
Yes, you can use antibacterial wipes to clean the steering wheel (if you're driving), door handles, gear shift and any other buttons or levers that might have been touched by someone else.
As a cancer patient or family member, I am feeling down, uncertain and stressed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. What can I do to find support and keep myself emotionally well?
UCSF Cancer Center Supportive Care and Psycho-Oncology programs remain available to you as a remote (video or telephone) service during this time. Our programs are fully staffed, and we are committed to providing necessary support, information and psychological counseling to our cancer patients and families. Our oncology social workers are working Monday through Friday, and are available by phone and video, with a small crew working on-site on a daily basis. The majority of our wide array of supportive care individual and group programs are up and running and staffed by those working from home.
Reach out and discover our innovative programs from mindfulness to art therapy to psychological care to nutrition and other support – all delivered via video, phone or online.
Connect with other patients who also want connection.
Please visit the following websites for contact information on our programs and services, as well as helpful tips and resources to de-stress and stay emotionally healthy or call (415) 885-3693 for more information.
More COVID-19 information for patients with cancer
Visitor Restrictions Due to Coronavirus
UCSF’s visitor policy has temporarily changed due to coronavirus concerns. Find out who shouldn’t visit our facilities, and what policies to be aware of when you do visit.
Cancer Patients: How We Are Preparing for Coronavirus
Learn how UCSF is working to provide continuously excellent care to our cancer patients during the coronavirus outbreak.
Breast Care and COVID-19
Learn about the best practices in breast care during the coronavirus crisis, including treatments and screenings, interacting with your care team, symptoms to watch for and more.
UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.