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COVID-19 worry is keeping patients from getting lifesaving early-detection screenings

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/25/2021 Michael Zinner

In health care, time is everything. And even beyond the continuing day-to-day tragedies, COVID-19 has created a ticking time bomb of further tragic consequences.

But time is not on our side right now.

Anxious about COVID-19, patients are delaying their routine doctor’s visits. A recent study revealed that the number of new cancer diagnosis went down significantly in the first full year of the pandemic – good news only on the surface. 

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The decline appeared to be the result of many adults not seeking out care or routine cancer screenings. These screenings have been an essential part of detecting and treating cancer in patients for decades, including breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer and many more. This is especially true for at-risk seniors who might feel the most vulnerable from the virus, but it is impacting people of all ages.

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The surge of COVID-19 cases across South Florida – almost all unvaccinated – is pushing hospital capacity to a breaking point. 

In recent weeks, hospitalizations for COVID-19 were up 50% from the peak of last year’s crisis, creating enormous pressure on our health system. While doctors, nurses and other health care providers offer urgent help for those critically ill with COVID-19, other important surgical procedures are being delayed, sometimes indefinitely.

Ticking time bomb, with a long fuse

In my decades of experience as a surgeon specializing in cancer treatment, most recently here in South Florida, I know first-hand that time is of the essence. That is why we encourage patients to get regular cancer screenings, why an early step in successful treatment might include surgery to remove a mass ahead of further treatment, and why the most satisfying outcomes ultimately create more quality time for patients to live their lives with their loved ones.

These recent developments with COVID-19 are potentially devastating, and I am deeply concerned about both the short-term and long-term impact of these delays on our ongoing battle with all types of cancer. When my colleagues and I look at the analysis of postponed screenings and surgeries, we know we are going to see a dramatic increase in medically complex cancer cases over the next decade. That is why surgeons like me describe the impact of COVID-19 not just as a ticking time bomb but, troublingly, one with “a 10-year fuse.”

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All the qualities of our world-class healthcare system that patients have come to rely on for cancer care and beyond – accessibility, consistency, reliability – are under strain from COVID-19, which is why the time has never been more important than now for action:

Get vaccinated.

Countless people have relied on surgeons for life-saving and life-changing moments. We do our very best to explain your surgery to you, but your trust in our ability and recommendations is as critical as any other factor. And surgeons across the country agree: Get vaccinated.

If you are already vaccinated, please encourage your family and friends to get vaccinated.

Better care now and as time goes on

Beyond increased protection against the impact of COVID-19 for you and your loved ones, it will help ensure that our hospitals can manage not just the patients who are critically ill from the pandemic, but all of the other patients who require other forms of care, including essential and important surgery.

As a cancer-center leader, this worries me tremendously. The latest wave from the delta variant is forcing patients and their surgeons to delay cancer surgery because hospitals are at capacity dealing almost exclusively with COVID-19 patients. 

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But it goes beyond that: As the COVID-19 cases decline from increased vaccinations across the region and the country, more people will resume visits to doctors, giving us the time to catch potentially dangerous diagnoses earlier and allow for the kind of treatment that I and my colleagues specialize in.

Increasing vaccination rates will not only help us give better care to people who are dealing with COVID-19 right now, but it will dramatically help cancer care as time goes on.

The most meaningful thing I can do as a surgeon is help patients create more quality time in their lives, and right now, a powerful way for people to create that time for themselves and countless others across South Florida and elsewhere across the country is to get vaccinated.

Dr. Michael Zinner, a surgeon, is founding CEO and executive medical director of the Miami Cancer Institute, part of Baptist Health.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 worry is keeping patients from getting lifesaving early-detection screenings

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