As public demand grows for limited supplies of COVID-19 vaccines, questions remain about the vaccines’ appropriateness for older adults with various illnesses. Among them are cancer patients receiving active treatment, dementia patients near the end of their lives and people with autoimmune conditions.
Recently, a number of readers have asked whether older relatives with these conditions should be immunized. This is a matter for medical experts, who strongly suggest that people with questions contact their doctors and discuss their individual medical circumstances.
Experts’ advice may be helpful since states are beginning to offer vaccines to adults over age 65, 70 or 75, including those with serious underlying medical conditions. Twenty-eight states are doing so, according to the latest survey by The New York Times.
Q: My 80-year-old mother has chronic lymphocytic leukemia. For weeks, her oncologist would not tell her “yes” or “no” about the vaccine. After much pressure, he finally responded: “It won’t work for you, your immune system is too compromised to make antibodies.” She asked if she can take the vaccine anyway, just in case it might offer a little protection, and he told her he was done discussing it with her.
First, some basics. Older adults, in general, responded extremely well to the two COVID-19 vaccines that have received special authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. In large clinical trials sponsored by drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna, the vaccines achieved substantial protection against significant illness, with efficacy for older adults ranging from 87% to 94%.
But people 65 and older undergoing cancer treatment were not included in these studies. As a result, it’s not known what degree of protection they might derive.
Dr. Tobias Hohl, chief of the infectious diseases service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, suggested that three factors should influence patients’ decisions: Are vaccines safe, will they be effective, and what is my risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19? Regarding risk, he noted that older adults are the people most likely to become severely ill and perish from COVID, accounting for about 80% of deaths to date — a compelling argument for vaccination.
Regarding safety, there is no evidence at this time that cancer patients are more likely to experience side effects from the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines than other people. Generally, “we are confident that these vaccines are safe for [cancer] patients,” including older patients, said Dr. Armin Shahrokni, a Memorial Sloan Kettering geriatrician and oncologist.
The exception, which applies to everyone, not just cancer patients: people who are allergic to COVID-19 vaccine components or who experience severe allergic responses after getting a first shot shouldn’t get COVID-19 vaccines.
Efficacy is a consideration for patients whose underlying cancer or treatment suppresses their immune systems. Notably, patients with blood and lymph node cancers may experience a blunted response to vaccines, along with patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Even in this case, “we have every reason to believe that if their immune system is functioning at all, they will respond to the vaccine to some extent,” and that’s likely to be beneficial, said Dr. William Dale, chair of supportive care medicine and director of the Center for Cancer Aging Research at City of Hope, a comprehensive cancer center in Los Angeles County.
Balancing the timing of cancer treatment and immunization may be a consideration in some cases. For those with serious disease who “need therapy as quickly as possible, we should not delay [cancer] treatment because we want to preserve immune function and vaccinate them” against COVID, said Hohl of Memorial Sloan Kettering.
One approach might be trying to time COVID vaccination “in between cycles of chemotherapy, if possible,” said Dr. Catherine Liu, a professor in the vaccine and infectious disease division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
In new guidelines published late last week, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, an alliance of cancer centers, urged that patients undergoing active treatment be prioritized for vaccines as soon as possible. A notable exception: Patients who’ve received stem cell transplants or bone marrow transplants should wait at least three months before getting vaccines, the group recommended.
The American Cancer Society’s chief medical and scientific officer, Dr. William Cance, said his organization is “strongly in favor of cancer patients and cancer survivors getting vaccinated, particularly older adults.” Given vaccine shortages, he also recommended that cancer patients who contract COVID-19 get antibody therapies as soon as possible, if their oncologists believe they’re good candidates. These infusion therapies, from Eli Lilly and Co. and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, rely on synthetic immune cells to help fight infections.
Q: Should my 97-year-old mom, in a nursing home with dementia, even get the COVID vaccine?
The federal government and all 50 states recommend COVID vaccines for long-term care residents, most of whom have Alzheimer’s disease or other types of cognitive impairment. This is an effort to stem the tide of COVID-related illness and death that has swept through nursing homes and assisted living facilities — 37% of all COVID deaths as of mid-January.
The Alzheimer’s Association also strongly encourages immunization against COVID-19, “both for people [with dementia] living in long-term care and those living in the community, said Beth Kallmyer, vice president of care and support.
“What I think this question is trying to ask is ‘Will my loved one live long enough to see the benefit of being vaccinated?’” said Dr. Joshua Uy, medical director at a Philadelphia nursing home and geriatric fellowship director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Potential benefits include not becoming ill or dying from COVID-19, having visits from family or friends, engaging with other residents and taking part in activities, Uy suggested. (This is a partial list.) Since these benefits could start accruing a few weeks after residents in a facility are fully immunized, “I would recommend the vaccine for a 97-year-old with significant dementia,” Uy said.
Minimizing suffering is a key consideration, said Dr. Michael Rafii, associate professor of clinical neurology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. “Even if a person has end-stage dementia, you want to do anything you can to reduce the risk of suffering. And this vaccine provides individuals with a good deal of protection from suffering severe COVID,” he said.
“My advice is that everyone should get vaccinated, regardless of what stage of dementia they’re in,” Rafii said. That includes dementia patients at the end of their lives in hospice care, he noted.
If possible, a loved one should be at hand for reassurance since being approached by someone wearing a mask and carrying a needle can evoke anxiety in dementia patients. “Have the person administering the vaccine explain who they are, what they’re doing and why they’re wearing a mask in clear, simple language,” Rafii suggested.
Q: I’m 80 and I have Type 2 diabetes and an autoimmune disease. Should I get the vaccine?
There are two parts to this question. The first has to do with “comorbidities” — having more than one medical condition. Should older adults with comorbidities get COVID vaccines?
Absolutely, because they’re at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID, said Dr. Abinash Virk, an infectious diseases specialist and co-chair of the Mayo Clinic’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
“Pfizer’s and Moderna’s studies specifically looked at people who were older and had comorbidities, and they showed that vaccine response was similar to [that of] people who were younger,” she noted.
The second part has to do with autoimmune illnesses such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, which also put people at higher risk. The concern here is that a vaccine might trigger inflammatory responses that could exacerbate these conditions.
Philippa Marrack, chair of the department of immunology and genomic medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver, said there’s no scientifically rigorous data on how patients with autoimmune conditions respond to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
So far, reasons for concern haven’t surfaced. “More than 100,000 people have gotten these vaccines now, including some who probably had autoimmune disease, and there’s been no systematic reporting of problems,” Marrack said. If patients with autoimmune disorders are really worried, they should talk with their physicians about delaying immunization until other COVID vaccines with different formulations become available, she suggested.
Last week, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society recommended that most patients with multiple sclerosis — another serious autoimmune condition — get the Pfizer or Moderna COVID vaccines.
“The vaccines are not likely to trigger an MS relapse or to worsen your chronic MS symptoms. The risk of getting COVID-19 far outweighs any risk of having an MS relapse from the vaccine,” it said in a statement.
We’re eager to hear from readers about questions you’d like answered, problems you’ve been having with your care and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.
Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.