On #COVID19, ventilators and triage

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC

In the age of COVID-19, patients may find themselves in a hospital or emergency department that does not have enough resources to give ICU beds or ventilators to all patients who need them. In an attempt to prepare for such a situation, some hospitals drafted “triage” policies that state who would be prioritized to receive a ventilator or ICU bed.

I want to share my perspective on triage as a both a science geek and a metastatic lung cancer patient in active treatment.

A not-yet-implemented triage policy from the Henry Ford Healthcare System in Michigan was shared online in late March, and caused an uproar in social media.  The metastatic cancer community learned that if resources were limited and that policy were in force, they would be denied a ventilator, along with those who had severe heart, lung, kidney or liver failure, or severe trauma or burns.  Over the next several days, other triage policies surfaced (some that included dementia or disability as a reason to deny care).  Articles about triage policy appeared in medical journalsopinion pieces, and general media.

Many of my fellow lung cancer patients are horrified by the impact such triage policies would have on their lives.  I too am worried about the possibility of not receiving treatment simply because I have metastatic lung cancer.

The lung cancer community has been battling treatment nihilism for years. It angers us—and rightly so—whenever we hear that someone did not receive the most effective treatment available simply because a doctor was unaware of changing statistics in lung cancer survival or the terrific response rate to targeted therapy or immune checkpoint inhibitors.

But this triage thing is not a matter of doctors being unaware of changes in lung cancer treatment, or not believing cancer patients deserve to live. This is an issue of resource shortages. Everyone deserves to live, but emotional pleas don’t give doctors a way to make a fair choice about who lives and who dies.

Reality check:  COVID-19 is redesigning hospital services out of necessity. Surgery theaters are being converted to ICUs. Hospital staffing is being reduced in an attempt to keep healthcare workers healthy and sane. Ventilators are in short supply.  When two patients need a ventilator-equipped ICU bed (whether they suffer from severe COVID-19 pneumonia or a heart attack), and only one bed or ventilator is available, someone will have to decide who gets the scarce resource. The patient who gets it will hopefully live. The patient who doesn’t will probably die. It’s a horrible Sophie’s Choice for healthcare providers who took the hippocratic oath.

This is not a human rights violation. It’s a medical ethics problem born of resource shortages. How should the medical world decide who lives and who dies?  Obviously, no one wants to hear that they are the one who will likely die.  But simply saying everyone has an equal right to life does not solve the resource problem.  We need a fair way to make a gut wrenching, impossible decision.

How can we make a fair decision? One possibility is to assess who is most likely to survive if they were given the respirator. The problem is, we don’t have much data to use in making this assessment. We have some data that cancer patients who get really sick with COVID-19 are less likely to survive, but only a few of those had lung cancer, so it’s not a good sample size on which to base a decision. We have some data that shows people who are 80+ years old are unlikely to survive COVID-19 once their disease has progressed to the point of needing a ventilator.  Thus one could say that when having to choose between a 20-year-old and an 80-year-old, all other things being equal, the younger patient has a better chance of survival and so gets the ventilator.  But what if the younger patient has metastatic pancreatic cancer and no cancer treatment is likely to work for them?  Then the choice isn’t so easy.

The US healthcare system—certainly most healthcare providers—have never faced these sorts of decisions before.  They need time to figure it out. Hospitals are attempting to create triage policies so that individual doctors are not continually faced with violating their Hippocratic Oath by deciding who lives and who dies. Our healthcare providers are already under tremendous pressure by long hours, patient overload, watching patients die alone without being able to offer a comforting touch, being repeatedly exposed to COVID-19 due to lack of personal protective equipment, and separation from their families to avoid infecting their loved ones.  They could use some guidelines.

In the March 28 Axiom Zoom webinar on “COVID-19 and the Impact on Thoracic Oncology” (recording available here), I asked the the assembled thoracic oncology experts what they tell their lung cancer patients (especially those with metastatic disease) who are scared that they will be denied treatment simply because of their lung cancer diagnosis. The doctors acknowledged that they too were concerned about this. One surgeon emphasized that doctors must continue advocating for their lung cancer patients to fight the historic nihilism faced by lung cancer patients. Another stated the importance of informing all critical care team members about the improved prognosis for lung cancer patients so that they wouldn’t be automatically left untreated. But no one had a solution that would solve the problem as a whole.

In the follow-up Axiom webinar on April 4 titled “COVID-19 and The Impact on Cancer Patients” (recording available soon), the doctors addressed the topic again. One doctor said she wrote a clinic note for each cancer patient, which the patient could download online and print to keep with them. She didn’t elaborate on the contents of the note, but presumably, the note listed the patient’s diagnosis, treatment and prognosis.

This raises another ethics issue.  What if that patient has a poor prognosis?  What if that patient doesn’t WANT to know their prognosis?  What if the patient is in a clinical trial and the doctor doesn’t know their prognosis?

While some lung cancer patients (such as myself) have had long runs with no evidence of disease on targeted therapy or immunotherapy, there are still many for whom prognosis is not so rosy: Patients who have extensive small cell lung cancer that has progressed after chemo. Patients who have oncogene-driven lung cancers and have blown through all their treatment options. Patients whose cancer is progressing rapidly despite immunotherapy. Patients, advocates, and advocacy organizations won’t have any credibility if we claim that all lung cancer patients have the same likelihood of surviving a severe case of COVID-19 as a healthy person.

Lung cancer patients are not the only group facing discrimination via triage.  This also affects people with disabilities, elders with dementia, children with heart issues, diabetics on insulin, and many others.  I don’t feel right saying lung cancer patients deserve a chance to live, but these other people don’t.  I support the statement published by the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF), The ARC of the United States, and many other disease and disability advocacy organizations (including the GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer and LUNGevity Foundation) titled “Applying HHS’S Guidance For States and Health Care Providers on Avoiding Disability-Based Discrimination in Treatment Rationing.” This is the sort of reasoned ethics discussion needed to help the medical community develop guidance on this tough topic.

Speaking as a member of a special interest group (metastatic lung cancer patients), this is a time to search for solutions that are right for EVERYONE, not just for one special interest group. I don’t think my right to live outweighs anyone else’s right to live. Ethically, when resources are limited, decisions on who gets care should be based on who has the better chance of survival based on available facts.  This is a very sensitive issue that could have a significant impact on how patients AND the medical community view lung cancer advocacy organizations.

I prefer to seek solutions to problems that work for the community as a whole. News flash: we are ALL going to die someday–and none of us know when. Patients living with advanced and metastatic lung cancer have become experts on living well despite uncertainty. You can take some steps to make the uncertainty easier for you and those you love.

  1. Identify which events or activities make your life worth living. Is it walking in the woods every day? Visiting distant family? Watching your youngest child graduate from kindergarten? Having lunch with a good friend? Indulging a good book? Petting the cat? Write all of them down, and then make plans to help them happen.
  2. Have an honest discussion with your doctor about your health status, goals of care (see #1), and prognosis. Ask if you are immunocompromised, have scarred lungs or limited breathing capacity, or are at risk of complications if put on a ventilator. Be honest about your fears and your health challenges.
  3. Ask your doctor to provide you with a BRIEF letter (2-3 sentences at most) on letterhead, signed and dated, stating your diagnosis and prognosis. Carry a copy with you in case you must go to the hospital. (It must be brief, or no ED doc will read it).
  4. Think about how you would prefer the end of life to look. Talk with your family NOW about your preferences–if disaster strikes, you might not have another chance. If you need help getting started, visit The Conversation Project.
  5. Prepare legal estate documents, especially a Durable Power of Attorney and Advanced Healthcare Directive. Learn more from the National Institute on Aging.  There are ways to do this even if you are Sheltering at Home during the pandemic–check out “Estate Planning Goes Digital as Many Families Explore Options.”

We can’t control the COVID-19 pandemic, lung cancer, or medical resource shortages. However, we CAN control how we react to them.  Prepare. Stay home. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands. And stay as healthy as you can.

April 6, 2020 Update to the Joint Statement on #Coronavirus #COVID19 From #LungCancer Advocacy Groups

The post below is shared with permission. It can also be found on the websites of the lung cancer advocacy organizations listed at the end of this blog post.


The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continues to grow in the US. As of April 5, 2020, there are 312,089 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US. These numbers may be an underestimation of the true burden of the disease due to lack of testing and a high proportion of asymptomatic yet infectious individuals.

To get a real-time understanding of the cases in the US, you can access the map through The New York Times.

In this week’s update, we answer the following important questions:

  1. Is social distancing working?
  2. Do I continue to social distance?
  3. Do I leave my city to go to someplace safe — such as a rural area?
  4. Should I use homemade masks to protect myself?
  5. Can I travel within the United States?


  1. Is social distancing working?

 YES, IT IS!  Washington and California quickly imposed state-wide social distancing through stringent shelter-in-place or Stay at Home policies once deaths occurred within their borders.  The graph below shows that COVID-19 deaths are still increasing in these two states, but not as fast as in other states. Deaths in New York State are doubling every 2 days, but in Washington State deaths are doubling only every 7 days.

The most up-to-date version of the graph below can be accessed from the New York Times website here.

 The CDC continues to recommend social distancing to help decrease transmission of COVID-19 within the community.  Social distancing measures, such as cancelling public gatherings and avoiding crowds, can slow the spread of the virus and spread cases out over a longer period of time, which can help hospitals provide care while avoiding being overwhelmed by patients. Social distancing helps “flatten the curve” in the spread of an infectious disease.

This is especially critical because hospitals and health systems are working at full capacity. Flattening the curve ensures that systems are functional and people who require care the most can get the attention they need. The CDC recommends a distance of 6 feet or 2 meters as the minimum distance between individuals as part of COVID-19 mitigation strategy.

We encourage you to check out CDC’s COVID-19 community mitigation strategies here.


  1. Do I continue to social distance?

YES, social distancing is currently the only known public health measure that can protect us from SARS-CoV-2. Social distancing minimizes risk of exposure to the virus. It is important to keep in mind that social distancing is NOT the same as social isolation. We encourage you to keep in touch with all your family, friends, and loved ones through phone and video conversations. Just because we are social distancing doesn’t mean we have to be socially isolated.

Social distancing is different from self-quarantine. Self-quarantine should be practiced by people who have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and who are at risk for coming down with COVID-19. It involves:

  • Using standard hygiene such as frequently washing your hands and not touching your face
  • Not sharing things like towels and utensils with other people who share the same household
  • Staying at home and not having any visitors
  • Staying at least 6 feet away from other people in your household

You do not need to have symptoms of COVID-19 to self-quarantine. Caregivers who have travelled or are leaving their homes frequently to run errands may choose to self-quarantine especially in COVID-19 hot zones.


  1. Do I leave my city to go to someplace safe — such as a rural area?

NO! You should not be leaving your urban apartment or home and move to a rural area for the following reasons:

  • You do not know if you or a loved one has been infected with SARS-CoV-2. An infected individual might not have any symptoms but still can continue to infect others
  • You may not have access to your regular doctors and healthcare in a rural setting
  • Small rural areas are not equipped to handle an influx of people. They may not have adequate number of grocery and produce stores. More importantly, they may not have adequate medical care facilities should there be an emergency

Do not indulge in “disaster gentrification” for your own safety, the safety of your loved ones, and that of other community members. It is our duty to keep rural communities insulated from this disease as much as possible.


  1. Should I use homemade masks to protect myself?

YES! The CDC reports that a significant portion of individuals with COVID-19 lack symptoms (“asymptomatic”) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (“pre-symptomatic”) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms.  This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms.  In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

Masks should be worn in conjunction with maintaining adequate social distancing. It is also important to keep in mind that these face masks are not surgical masks or N95 masks (to be used primarily by healthcare works as part of personal protective equipment).

Please watch this handy video to make your own homemade masks:


  1. Should I travel within the US?

Though the CDC does not typically make suggestions about domestic travel, they highly recommend avoiding all non-essential travel within the US. Several cities and states already have a shelter-in-place order. Points to keep in mind should you need to consider domestic travel (from the CDC):

  • Is COVID-19 present in your home community? If so, avoid traveling to avoid spreading the virus. You might be required to enter quarantine at your destination.
  • Is COVID-19 spreading in the area where I am travelling to?
  • Will you or your travel companion(s) be in close contact with others during your trip?
  • Are you or your travel companion(s) more likely to get severe illness if you get COVID-19?
  • Do you have a plan for taking time off from work in case you are told to stay home for 14 days for self-monitoring or if you get sick with COVID-19?
  • Do you live with someone who is older or has a serious, chronic medical condition (especially important for caregivers)?


Resources and websites:

  1. IASLC’s Guide to COVID-19 and Lung Cancer
  1. The National Cancer Institute has a special website for COVID-19 and emergency preparedness. COVID-19: What People with Cancer Should Know – https://www.cancer.gov/contact/emergency-preparedness/COVID-19
  2. We are following updates provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which can be found here:
  1. Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Resource Center is one of the best places to get current updates. https://COVID-19.jhu.edu/
  2. Interactive map of US COVID-19 cases by statehttps://www.politico.com/interactives/2020/COVID-19-testing-by-state-chart-of-new-cases/
  3. The One-Two Punch: Cancer And COVID-19 (an important perspective for cancer patients) – https://www.forbes.com/sites/miriamknoll/2020/03/20/the-one-two-punch-cancer-and-COVID-19/#73744a4358e6
  4. You can find information specific to your state or city or town on your health department’s website.
  1. The American Medical Association is also maintaining a resource website for healthcare providers. You can find more information here:
  2. If you cannot avoid air travel, check out this handy article on “Dirtiest Places on Airplanes: How to Avoid Germs

GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer
(Amy Moore, PhD amoore@go2foundation.org )
LUNGevity Foundation (Upal Basu Roy, PhD, MPH ubasuroy@lungevity.org )
Lung Cancer Foundation of America (Kim Norris KNorris@lcfamerica.org )
Lung Cancer Research Foundation (Jan Baranski, PhD jbaranski@lcrf.org)
LungCAN (Kimberly Lester kimberly@lungcan.org)