What are coronaviruses, and what is COVID-19?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause flu-like or cold-like symptoms, and more serious respiratory illnesses. They are not new – the first coronavirus was discovered in the 1960s. COVID-19 is the name of the new coronavirus first reported in 2019 in China that has since spread across the globe and is now considered a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).

What should cancer patients know about COVID-19?

While data are still somewhat limited with this new coronavirus, it appears that there are people who are more at risk for COVID-19. Groups at higher risk include people who are older (particularly over 70), and people with other health conditions. It is thought that cancer patients could be at a high risk, because many cancer patients have a low or weakened immune system.


"We are making every effort to protect our patients and create a safe environment for patient care."

Gary K. Schwartz, MD  


Cancer treatments such as bone marrow transplantation, intensive chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery can cause patients’ immune systems to weaken, or become immunocompromised. This can make it harder for the body to fight off viruses and other diseases. It is very important for cancer patients and their families to take extra precautions to protect themselves.

“We are making every effort to protect our patients and create a safe environment for patient care, including screening everyone entering our building for fever and other COVID-19 symptoms,” says Gary K. Schwartz, MD, deputy director of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center and chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

“We are also offering our patients televisits, where you can see and talk to your doctor through a device like a smartphone, tablet, or computer. Our patients’ safety is our number one concern,” says Dr. Schwartz.

Unless a patient needs to come in for treatment, our physicians are advising all patients to change their appointment to a telehealth visit to limit any potential exposures. This can be done via Connect on the Epic MyChart portal. If you have any difficulty along the way, please call 646-962-4200 for assistance.

You can call your doctor’s office or our main access center at 212-305-5098 with any questions about your appointment or scheduling.

To access Connect, click here. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click 'self sign up,' and you will then be directed to download My Chart. Click here for more instructions.

How does COVID-19 spread? How can I protect myself?

COVID-19 is spread from person-to-person, meaning between people who are in close contact (within about 6 feet of each other), and through droplets produced when someone with COVID-19 coughs or sneezes. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), you should take these steps to protect yourself:

  • Wash your hands often, especially after being in public places, blowing your nose, or sneezing. Wash with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol if soap and water is not available.
  • Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
  • Keep a distance of 6 feet or more between yourself and others

The best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from COVID-19 is to avoid being exposed. Countries around the world are calling for social distancing, “shelter at home,” or enacting quarantines to attempt to reduce exposure across communities.

What is ‘flattening the curve?’ How does social distancing help?

In a matter of months, COVID-19 has rapidly spread across the globe. In epidemiology, the idea of slowing this spread so that fewer people are sick (and needing medical attention) at the same time is called “flattening the curve.” The “curve” refers to the number of people who have COVID-19, and slowing the spread avoids the spike of cases and helps alleviate potential stress on the health care system.

“The goal is to have fewer people going into the hospital or needing attention at any given time. We want to prevent the big peaks that would put a tremendous burden on healthcare facilities,” says Stephen S. Morse, PhD, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Social distancing, sheltering at home, and quarantines are all designed to slow infection and flatten the curve. By limiting your contact with others, you give the virus less of a chance to infect you and others.

“You can slow the rate of transmission so it takes longer for people to come into contact with someone who is infected,” says Morse. “We must persist in doing what we can to protect ourselves.”

Read the full story Public Health Rallies to 'Flatten the Curve'" in the Mailman School of Public Health newsroom.