Last updated March 24, 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 refers to the illness caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. SARS-CoV-2 is just one of many kinds of coronaviruses. This large family of viruses cause a variety of illnesses, including MERS, SARS, the common cold and other respiratory infections.
COVID-19 was first described in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, and has spread within China and many other countries. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as of mid-March, 2020, it had been detected in more than 150 locations around the world.
How does the virus spread?
We don't know for sure how this particular virus spreads, but most likely it spreads from person to person in the same way that the flu and other respiratory infections spread between people who are in close contact. This happens when someone who is infected coughs or sneezes and their respiratory droplets come into contact with the eyes, nose, and mouth of other people who are nearby.
Can I catch coronavirus from a COVID-19 carrier who has no symptoms?
Yes, it might be possible to catch coronavirus from someone who does not have 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. Symptoms may include:
- A new or worsening cough within the last 14 days
- Shortness of breath,
- Muscle aches or fever.
Most people with COVID-19 have a mild case. A smaller percentage of cases are severe and can involve pneumonia. Elderly people and people with underlying medical conditions seem to be at higher risk for severe infection. It may take up to 14 days for symptoms to appear.
Who is at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19?
Older adults (age 60 and older) and those with serious chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, lung disease and cancer are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19. Patients who are immunocompromised are also at higher risk.
What does it mean to be immunocompromised?
White blood cells fight infections. If white blood cell counts are low or white blood cells are not functioning well, the body cannot 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 on immunosuppressive medication and patients with other known immunodeficiencies.
As a patient with cancer, how much higher is my risk of severe illness from COVID-19?
A recent Chinese study of patients with cancer who had COVID-19 found that patients who had undergone chemotherapy or surgery in the previous month had a higher risk compared with those who had not received recent treatment. The risk appears to be higher in patients with more than one chronic medical condition.
Patients undergoing active treatment for cancer are presumably at higher risk than those who are in remission. Patients in their first year after stem cell transplantation or CAR-T cell therapy could be at higher risk for complications if infected by COVID-19. Those who are beyond one year after transplantation and still considered immunocompromised may also have an elevated risk for complications.
In what circumstances should I self-quarantine (stay at home)?
Self-quarantine and contact your provider if you have a new or worsening cough within the last 14 days, shortness of breath, muscle aches or fever.
Self-quarantine if you've been in contact with someone who has a known or suspected COVID-19 infection – even if you have no symptoms yourself.
How long does coronavirus live on surfaces?
We don't know. Some studies indicate that it can live on plastic or cardboard for up to three days. Household surfaces can be disinfected with cleaning agents such as bleach, hydrogen peroxide or alcohol.
What precautions should be taken by people at higher risk of serious illness with COVID-19?
Here's what you should do if you're at higher risk from COVID-19:
- Have a 30-day supply of all medications, and request refills at least seven days before running out.
- Take everyday precautions to keep space between yourself and others.
- When you go out in public, keep your distance from others.
- Limit close contact (stay 6 feet away) and wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If water isn't available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid crowds, cruise travel and non-essential 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 either of these two situations:
- 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 someone infected with COVID-19.
- Having direct contact with the infectious secretions of someone with COVID-19 – for example, if someone who's infected coughs or sneezes on you.
Should I delay my treatment, surgery or radiation therapy at the Cancer Center?
Decisions about postponing cancer treatment must be made on an individual basis in consultation with your doctor. If you have questions or concerns, please contact your doctor's office.
Will I be safe in the hospital if UCSF 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. Patients with respiratory symptoms who come to our clinics are immediately given a mask to wear 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 before their appointment and asking questions to determine whether they have any symptoms such as a new cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches or fever. We also ask about potential exposure to others who may have tested positive for COVID-19 and whether patients have traveled in the last 14 days.
We are also converting in-person visits to telemedicine visits via video conferencing whenever it's appropriate.
What do I need to do if I have an appointment at the Cancer Center?
You can contact your provider’s office to find out whether your visit can be converted to a telemedicine visit. If you will be coming to the office in person, be aware that we will not be allowing any visitors, except in special circumstances.
Please let us know if you have any of the following symptoms before your visit: A new or worsening cough in the last 14 days, shortness of breath, muscle aches or fever. If you have had any of these symptoms, our clinic team will give you guidance, but we will ask you to not come 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's no evidence of COVID-19 being transmitted though food. For general health reasons, always wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before preparing or eating food. Also wash your hands throughout the day after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, or going to the bathroom.
It's possible that someone can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes.
Should I wear a face mask to prevent COVID-19?
If you are well, the CDC does not recommend wearing a face mask to protect yourself from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19. You should only wear a mask if a health care professional recommends it. Face masks are recommended only for people who have symptoms of or may have COVID-19. This is to reduce the risk of infecting others. Face masks are also crucial for health workers and other people who are taking care of someone infected with COVID-19 in a close setting (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) is inserted into your nose to obtain a sample of mucus from the sinus cavity, and another swab is inserted in your mouth to take a sample from your throat. Neither swab should hurt, but the swabs 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 healthcare provider. Older patients and people who have severe underlying medical conditions or are immunocompromised should contact their healthcare 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 healthcare 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 you do if you develop symptoms of respiratory infection?
If you have a new or worsening cough in 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. Do 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're around other people at home or in public.
- Wash your hands after touching your face, before eating, after using the bathroom. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer with more than 60 percent alcohol.
- Avoid sharing personal household items.
- Clean all high-touch areas such as counters, tabletops, doorknobs, phones and keyboards every day. Use a household cleaning spray or wipe according to 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 COVID-19.
On Monday, March 9, we began 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is enabling us to evaluate approximately 60 to 80 patients per day.
We are now testing patients with symptoms consistent with COVID-19, especially those with more significant symptoms or certain risks for themselves or others (older people, healthcare workers, people who are immunocompromised). Testing is prioritized for patients who are hospitalized and those who are immunocompromised and showing symptoms associated with 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?
No treatments are 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 do not recommend going to the gym. Consider outdoor activities such as walking or hiking to maintain your activity level.
As a cancer patient, is it safe for me to travel by airplane right now?
We recommend against air travel. 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 tailored specifically to you and your treatment. You and your care team can discuss the risks and benefits together so you can make an informed decision.
How do I get my prescriptions?
Alto pharmacy delivers prescription medications and can be a resource for patients who are 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.
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.