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COVID-19: A fall in the number of people being diagnosed with cancer in recent weeks has been reported in several countries,


May 4, 2020


COVID-19: A fall in the number of people being diagnosed with cancer in recent weeks has been reported in several countries, including the UK and the US. There is growing concern that delayed diagnoses during the pandemic will result in worse outcomes. A comparison of current UK health records with pre-pandemic figures indicate a 70-89% reduction in urgent referrals for suspected cancer. Modelling predicts associated excess mortality.


(NOTE: this work has been made available prior to peer review.)


Estimating excess mortality in people with cancer and multimorbidity in the COVID-19 emergency

Alvina G. Lai et al



Cancer and multiple non-cancer conditions are considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as high risk conditions in the COVID-19 emergency. Professional societies have recommended changes in cancer service provision to minimize COVID-19 risks to cancer patients and health care workers. However, we do not know the extent to which cancer patients, in whom multi-morbidity is common, may be at higher overall risk of mortality as a net result of multiple factors including COVID-19 infection, changes in health services, and socioeconomic factors.


We report multi-center, weekly cancer diagnostic referrals and chemotherapy treatments until April 2020 in England and Northern Ireland. We analyzed populationbased health records from 3,862,012 adults in England to estimate 1-year mortality in 24 cancer sites and 15 noncancer comorbidity clusters (40 conditions) recognized by CDC as high-risk. We estimated overall (direct and indirect) effects of COVID-19 emergency on mortality under different Relative Impact of the Emergency (RIE) and different Proportions of the population Affected by the Emergency (PAE). We applied the same model to the US, using Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program data.


Weekly data until April 2020 demonstrate significant falls in admissions for chemotherapy (45-66% reduction) and urgent referrals for early cancer diagnosis (70-89% reduction), compared to pre-emergency levels. Under conservative assumptions of the emergency affecting only people with newly diagnosed cancer (incident cases) at COVID- 19 PAE of 40%, and an RIE of 1.5, the model estimated 6,270 excess deaths at 1 year in England and 33,890 excess deaths in the US. In England, the proportion of patients with incident cancer with 1 comorbidity was 65.2%. The number of comorbidities was strongly associated with cancer mortality risk. Across a range of model assumptions, and across incident and prevalent cancer cases, 78% of excess deaths occur in cancer patients with 1 comorbidity.


We provide the first estimates of potential excess mortality among people with cancer and multimorbidity due to the COVID-19 emergency and demonstrate dramatic changes in cancer services. To better inform prioritization of cancer care and guide policy change, there is an urgent need for weekly data on cause-specific excess mortality, cancer diagnosis and treatment provision and better intelligence on the use of effective treatments for comorbidities.