Chita Nazal-Matunog, MD
On May 29, 2021 and on June 19, 2021 the Southern Philippines Medical Center (SPMC), the country’s biggest DOH-retained, general care hospital based in Davao City, conducted the first and largest COVID-19 vaccination drive for cancer patients. Three hundred twelve (312) cancer patients received their first and second doses of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The activity was spearheaded by the hospital’s Adult Medical Oncology Section.
Published reports show that cancer patients have increased risk of contracting COVID-19, and those on active treatment, with metastatic or progressive cancer and with poor functional status, have worse outcomes. While there is no specific information on how effective vaccines might be for cancer patients with weak immune systems, the Philippine Society of Medical Oncology (PSMO), along with international professional organizations and the Department of Health (DOH), still recommend that cancer patients be vaccinated to reduce morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 infection.
SPMC was designated the primary COVID-19 referral center of Mindanao when President Duterte first declared the presence of the pandemic in the Philippines in March 2020. Wards and ICUs of the hospital were transformed to COVID-19 units to accommodate the rise in severe cases that needed critical care. Out-patient services were suspended, excluding the hospital’s Cancer Institute which was addressing an equally life-threatening disease – CANCER. The Adult Medical Oncology Section was among the few specialty clinics that continued their face-to-face outpatient consults and delivery of chemotherapy.
To meet the challenge of delivering cancer care during the pandemic, strategies to promote health and safety were instituted like telemedicine, consult by appointment, triaging and strict pre-screening, appropriate use of PPE’s, mandatory wearing of face masks, hand hygiene, disinfection, and physical distancing.
For patients with the Big C – CANCER, vaccination adds another layer of protection. Apart from inhibiting transmission and developing herd immunity, and therefore ending the pandemic, vaccination gives patients the added reassurance and peace of mind that while doing hospital visits and treatments they do not have to fear contracting the other Big C – COVID-19.
Inspired to be relevant, both in the delivery of holistic cancer care and the success of the DOH’s efforts to realize a COVID-protected Philippines, the consultant staff of the Adult Medical Oncology Section, namely, Dr. Chita Matunog, Dr. Felycette Lapus, Dr. Ken Demegillo, Dr. Arthur Lui, Dr. Amherstia Morelos, and Dr. Vanina Javier, and their medical oncology fellows-in-training, namely, Dr. Jimmy Ivan Singanon, Dr. Perlita dela Cruz, Dr. Fatima Ibrahim and Dr. Lean de Gracia, led the vaccination drive. The doctors manned the registration, screening, and post vaccination stations, while clinical pharmacists and chemotherapy nurses oversaw the vaccination proper. Vaccine confidence was strengthened when the cancer patients saw their medical oncologists and chemo nurses present and involved.
Partners from the pharmaceutical industry provided technical support as “call center agents,” pre-scheduling and reminding patients of their scheduled time of arrival to facilitate an orderly conduct of the vaccination. The Medical Center Chief of SPMC, Dr. Ricardo Audan, the Chief Training Officer, Dr. Elinore Concha, and the Infectious Disease consultants of the Department of Medicine provided institutional support and resources.
It was a worthwhile outreach activity of the SPMC Medical Oncology that should produce ripples in the PSMO.