Dr. Norman E. Sharpless, Director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI), located in Bethesda, Maryland, warns that the U.S. can expect as many as 10,000 excess deaths from cancer in the next 10 years as a result of delays in diagnosis and suboptimal treatment caused by the coronavirus outbreak. In an opinion editorial published in Science Magazine on June 19, Dr. Sharpless writes:
“What will be the likely impact of the pandemic on cancer mortality in the United States? Modeling the effect of COVID-19 on cancer screening and treatment for breast and colorectal cancer (which together ac- count for about one-sixth of all cancer deaths) over the next decade suggests almost 10,000 excess deaths from breast and colorectal cancer deaths; that is, a ~1% increase in deaths from these tumor types during a period when we would expect to see almost 1,000,000 deaths from these two diseases types.* The number of excess deaths per year would peak in the next year or two. This analysis is conservative, as it does not consider other cancer types, it does not account for the additional nonlethal morbidity from upstaging, and it assumes a moderate disruption in care that completely resolves after 6 months. It also does not account for regional variations in the response to the pandemic, and these effects may be less severe in parts of the country with shorter or less severe lockdowns.”
Dr. Sharpless also notes that the shift of resources toward combatting the pandemic has significantly slowed down cancer research and clinical trials of new drugs and therapies. Unless arrested, this slowdown will have a cascading effect of delaying the introduction of improved therapies in the next several years, further enhancing the probability of excess cancer deaths. According to Dr. Sharpless, NCI is working with the Food & Drug Administration to support clinical trials, waive or modify certain protocols, and fund new trials and research, including a study of COVID-19’s effects on cancer.
Dr. Sharpless’s warning comes as the virus surges in many states and communities around the country, and with a “second wave” widely predicted for the fall, this problem could get worse. And while Dr. Sharpless focuses on the virus’s effect on cancer diagnosis and treatment, the same goes for a whole slew of health care conditions that can be most effectively treated if identified early in the disease stage. Any COVID-19 liability protection legislation must recognize this situation and assure that physicians and other health care providers who follow public health directives and protocols in dealing with the pandemic are not held liable on a theory that they were negligent in failing to diagnose or adequately treat someone with a given condition. We cannot allow a public health crisis to become a litigation crisis as well.