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The Omicron variant and people with blood cancer

17th Dec 2021

People with blood cancer have been particularly badly affected by Covid for two reasons: their compromised immune systems mean they are more likely to become seriously ill if they get it; and the vaccines are less likely to work well for them.

This means that for almost two years, people with blood cancer have had to live with the worry of contracting the virus, and the sense of isolation and loneliness that has come from trying to avoid it.

There is a limit to how long people can keep living like this, and many people with blood cancer have started to return to something like normal life, making choices about how they balance the risk of the virus with the benefit of spending time with the people they love.

It is not our role to tell people what to do. Instead, we try to give evidence-based information so people can make their own informed choices. With omicron, there is still lots we do not know. Scientists are not yet confident about its severity in the general population, or the extent to which it evades vaccines. When it comes to people with blood cancer specifically, we know virtually nothing about how it affects them compared to previous variants.

But we do know the infection rate is already very high and highly likely to increase further. That means the next few weeks could be among the highest risk of the whole pandemic for people with blood cancer.

What people with blood cancer can do

Almost two years of the pandemic, has taken a great toll on mental health for people with blood cancer. We know some people are desperate to avoid the complete isolation of early 2020, but as the omicron variant sweeps through the population at pace it is important for people with compromised immune systems to give consideration to the steps that could be taken to avoid the virus.

The right decisions will depend on your own personal circumstances but might include:

  • Working from home if you can, or if that’s not possible then taking annual leave or seeing if your employer is open to you taking unpaid leave. And if the worry about Covid means you are experiencing mental ill-health, you may be entitled to sick leave.  Our Work and Money page has lots of supportive information about these issues, including information for your employer.
  • Think carefully about your social interactions over the next few weeks, particularly those happening indoors, and prioritise those that are most important to you.  Even with those that mean the most to you, perhaps think about whether you’d feel more comfortable when the risk from Omicron has reduced.
  • Talking to your children’s school about the risks and ask if there is work they can do at home instead while the infection rate is so high. Read our Coronavirus and Schools pages for support.
  • Avoiding the shops by getting online deliveries or seeing if neighbours or friends will help you with your shopping. Or you can try to get help from Community Response Volunteers.
  • Making liberal use of lateral flow tests, asking people to test immediately before meeting you.  While they will not pick up everyone who has Covid, they are definitely worth doing. You can read more about this on our web page about Omicron and coping with risk and uncertainty.
  • Making sure that everyone in your household and who you might come in to contact with has had a vaccine booster.

Not all of this will be possible for everyone. With employment, some people have to carry on going into work to pay their bills. And for many people, the mental health impact of not seeing anyone is not worth the reduction in risk of Covid, particularly around Christmas.

The infection rate is expected to rise very quickly and then fall quite quickly, so we may not be talking about taking these kind of measures for months on end. Rather, it is worth considering making an additional effort to avoid the virus over the next few weeks, while the infection rate is particularly high, before getting back to trying to striking a balance between caution and enjoying life as the infection rate returns to something similar to what we have seen over the last few months.

Whatever people choose to do, they may find the next few weeks particularly tough. If that’s you, reading our website page on coping with risk may help, or call our free support line on 0808 2080 888.

If you do test positive it is very important you alert your treating team immediately. Many people with blood cancer are entitled to emergency access to covid treatments, some of which have to be taken within a short period of testing positive. This is a fast-moving process, and we will keep our webpages on antibody and antiviral treatments update as things change.  

What people around people with blood cancer should do

If you know someone with blood cancer, your support could be crucial for them in the next few weeks.

  • The most supportive thing you can do is to make sure people with blood cancer do not feel under any pressure to meet with you if they don’t feel comfortable. We've heard lots of people talking about feeling guilty or frustrated at having to change their own plans or other people’s plans, particularly at Christmas. But you can help by making it clear to them that you support their decision (even if you’re sad that you won’t get to spend time with them).
  • If you do come into contact with people with blood cancer over the next few weeks, they will be better protected if you have had a booster and do a lateral flow test just before you see them.
  • If you live with someone with blood cancer, try to be as cautious as possible about coming into contact with the virus, because if you get it then you might pass it onto them.
  • If you’re friends with someone with blood cancer, offer to do their shopping for them, or think of other ways you can help them avoid having to go to crowded places.
  • And if you manage an employee who has blood cancer, we know that for many people, working from home is not an option. But employers have a duty of care, so please allow them not to come into work over the next few weeks. This would be a piece of kindness that might save their life. You can read our information for employers to understand more about their situation.

What the Government should do

It is shocking that a government that started the pandemic with a promise to “protect life by safeguarding those who are most vulnerable” is now going into what it admits is an “emergency” offering no help at all to the immunocompromised.

The next few weeks were always going to be difficult for people with blood cancer, but the lack of Government support is likely to make things worse. We want the Government to:

  • Write to every immunocompromised person to give them advice about how they can keep safe.
  • Give immunocompromised people who cannot work from home the financial support that means they do not have to choose between their finances and their health.
  • Urgently address the problems with the booster doses for the immunocompromised, ensuring people with blood cancer can get one three months after their third dose, without the additional anxiety of trying to work out how to access them.
  • Allow everyone with blood cancer direct access to treatment as soon as testing positive for covid.

At a time when there is so much going on, it can be difficult to get attention for the urgent need to better support and protect people who are immunocompromised at the very time they most need help. We can all help keep the spotlight on it by writing to our elected representatives and posting about it on social media.

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