The last 17 months have disrupted routines for most people. But the American Cancer Society
and the Bay County Health Department
both say it’s time to get back to routine immunizations and screenings.
Dr. Thomas Bender, Medical Director of the Bay County Health Department, says immunizations for preventable diseases such as polio, measles, meningitis, and pertussis, dropped dramatically during the pandemic. But about a year ago, people started rolling up their sleeves for routine immunizations once again. Learn more about immunizations on the county’s website.
That hasn’t been the case with cancer screenings.
“We’re actually extremely concerned,” says Jane Caplinger, Senior Director of Cancer Control Partnerships with the American Cancer Society. “One of the biggest threats to our overall health has been a dramatic drop in cancer screening tests due to COVID-19.”
Throughout the pandemic, which saw shutdowns in Michigan beginning in March of 2020, Caplinger says one-third of adults didn’t receive their recommended screenings, and “between March and June of last year alone, 22 million cancer screenings were missed.”
Health care providers and the Cancer Society are looking at why people hesitate to get their screenings. “Here in Michigan, we put a task force together with our health system partners to try to re-engage people in screening,” says Caplinger.
Bender attributes some of the decline to access issues.
“In the initial few months, we discontinued a lot of our health department activities, as did many vaccine providers.” Bender says. “A lot of clinics just battened down the hatches,” which led to dramatic drops in the numbers of routine immunizations.
Bender says between mid-February and August 2020, the percentage of routine vaccinations for people aged 13 to 18 just in Bay County dropped from 88% to 40%. In August 2020, the health department began offering immunization clinics at the Bay County Civic Arena once a week, which pushed the vaccination numbers back up into the 80% range.
Unlike the health department, though, “people are not running to get screened for cancer,” Caplinger says.
Whether it is out of fear of coronavirus, not believing screenings are necessary, or unemployment, there has been a significant drop in the number of breast, colon, prostate, and lung cancer screenings. Caplinger says one study showed that colon, cervical, and breast cancer screenings plummeted by over 80% during the pandemic and have yet to recover.
Health care professionals urge people to keep appointments for routine health care now to catch and treat problems early.
Help is available. For people who lost their employer-sponsored health insurance, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services offers what’s known as the BCCCP (Breast, Cervical Cancer Control Program)
. The BCCCP provides free and low-cost screenings. In addition, Caplinger says many providers have what’s called charity care, which can help with the costs.
Another lingering issue, Caplinger says, is questions about the risk of COVID-19.
“There’s fear, there’s confusion, but our health system partners have put more cleaning protocols in place to make sure it is a safe environment.” She says it’s important that people know it is safe to get cancer screenings, “so don’t put them off.”
Regardless of whether it’s fear or financial circumstances, Caplinger says getting people back into the habit of getting their cancer screenings is a major concern. The consequences are great.
“Don’t wait until you have symptoms. So often people wait until they have symptoms and by then it’s too late. It’s best to get screenings at the time they’re due, and not put them off,” she says.
Getting routine screenings when they’re due means diagnosing cancer can happen in earlier stages, when it is most treatable.
“We’re trying to drive people back to screening in different ways,” she says, because it is too important not to.
The American Cancer Society has information on where screening is available, and its drive to return to screening on its website.