AUSTIN – After experiencing a precipitous decline in the number of Texans receiving routine cancer screenings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations that provide cancer screenings funded by grants from Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) report encouraging signs of recovery.
“Simply put, regular cancer screening tests improve and save lives,” said Dee Margo, Presiding Officer of the CPRIT Oversight Committee. “Screenings increase early detection of many cancers when they’re easier to treat. An unfortunate side effect of the pandemic is that these screenings stopped, which allowed some early-stage cancers to go undetected. We encourage everyone to talk to your doctor or a health care professional about securing your recommended cancer screenings.”
During the first several months of the pandemic, cancer screenings decreased by 70 to 90 percent. The abrupt drop in available screenings disproportionately impacts medically underserved populations in Texas.
Rural Texans and racial/ethnic minority populations across the state are already less likely to receive regular cancer screenings. The COVID-19-related screening delays may lead to more unnecessary late-stage cancer diagnoses and deaths. Resuming and increasing cancer screenings among these populations is a priority.
To reach underserved Texans during the pandemic, CPRIT’s cancer prevention screening providers quickly pivoted from traditional outreach channels and standard screening visits, exploring new ways to return screenings to pre-pandemic levels. Their innovative approaches will serve as a model for future screening protocols.
Below are examples from current CPRIT Prevention grantees addressing COVID-19 challenges:
Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center’s Breast and Cervical Care for West Texas project now provides same-day biopsies to avoid multiple clinic visits. Together with enhanced safety protocols and social distancing, the project is at 80 percent of pre-pandemic screenings.
Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center’s Get FIT to Stay Fit program in the Panhandle resumed screening efforts in August with education and outreach using telephone and videoconference presentations. With these adaptations, the number of at-home fecal immunochemical tests (FIT) that participants return for lab analysis is consistent with pre-pandemic levels. Patient enrollment in the project continues to increase with at-home FITs.
Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso’s De Casa en Casa 3 Cervical Cancer Screening in West and South Texas project is using its extensive database of previous participants for help recruiting new patients via telephone. Providers secure digital consent for services and have increased referrals with telephone follow-ups. Pandemic-related safety protocols instituted at the clinics provide patients and staff greater confidence for in-person visits, and screening rates have returned to normal.
Houston-based The Rose incorporated elevated safety precautions and limited the number of appointments during the pandemic but was able to reduce wait times for routine mammograms by 33 % by instituting a new mammography process at their highest volume center. Service levels are back to 70-75 percent of pre-COVID activity.
The Breast Screening & Patient Navigation project run by the Moncrief Cancer Center at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center resumed screenings in June with heightened safety precautions for patients and providers, including longer appointment times, required masking, full personal protective equipment for staff, cleaning/sanitization between appointments, and visitor restrictions. Screenings are now at or near capacity.
CPRIT has awarded $2.7 billion in grants to Texas research institutions and organizations through its academic research, prevention, and product development research programs. CPRIT has recruited 228 distinguished researchers, supported the establishment, expansion or relocation of 42 companies to Texas, and generated more than $5 billion in additional public and private investment.
Funding from CPRIT has advanced scientific and clinical knowledge and provided 7 million life-saving cancer prevention and early detection services reaching Texans from all 254 counties.
On November 5, 2019, Texas voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment providing an additional $3 billion to CPRIT for a total $6 billion investment in cancer research and prevention efforts across Texas, one of the largest state funded research programs in United States history and the second largest source of funding for cancer research in the world.