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COVID-19 Pandemic created a cancer screening deficit in the United States

The world is still grappling with the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and a recent investigation published in JAMA Oncology assessed the association of COVID-19 on cancer screening. While canceling nonemergency clinical appointments was believed to be vital to stop the spread of the virus to the high-risk individuals, it also had a direct negative influence on cancer screening. It is further believed that these delays in cancer screenings will lead to excessive deaths that can be attributed to the pandemic.

The study found that screening of breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer all sharply decreased in March through May 2020 compared to 2019. April 2020 had the largest decrease in screening with a drop of 90.8% for breast cancer, 79.3% for colorectal cancer, and 63.4% for prostate cancer. By July 2020, both breast and prostate cancer saw near complete recovery, however colorectal cancer screening rates remained 13.1% lower. However, the study still found a total estimated screening deficit of 9.4 million in 2020 compared with 2019.

Regional changes in screening were also found, with all 3 cancer types having the sharpest decline in March through May in the Northeast region of the United States. Interestingly, the Midwest and the South saw a slower rate of recovery in screening during June and July.

As expected during the pandemic but contrary to conventional reasoning, increased age was associated with less screening. A surprising observation was that individuals who used telehealth had higher rates of screening for all cancers. This interesting insight provides support that telehealth can be a vital tool in the assessment of cancer.

Additionally, the study also magnified a pre-pandemic issue – the discomfort of a colonoscopy. There remains a strong need for the development of new tools for detecting colorectal cancer in order to increase the number of people willing to participate in screenings.

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