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Cancer patients await eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine in Washington

Currently in Washington, cancer alone is not a qualifier for the vaccine. The states tells KING 5 it will be in Phase 2.

SEATTLE — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists cancer as one of the conditions putting people at increased risk of severe cases of COVID-19.

Experts say the COVID-19 vaccine is safe for most people battling cancer. But not all patients will get access to it right away.

Currently, in Washington state, cancer alone is not a qualifier for the vaccine. In Phase 1B Tier 3, which the state predicts will begin in mid-April, people 50 and older with two underlying health conditions will be eligible, but cancer only counts as one.

Steve Crawford is a cancer patient who had been eager to get the vaccine.

"I was fortunate to have found my prostate cancer early," Crawford said.

Doctors diagnosed Crawford with prostate cancer in March 2019. He went through proton therapy at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and is doing well.

Then came 2020, and along with it, the coronavirus pandemic. Crawford reached out to Dr. Jing Zeng, the medical director for Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Proton Therapy Center.

"I contacted Dr. Zeng, I said, 'Technically I have cancer,' even though I'm not undergoing treatment at this time, do I need to be concerned about this? And her answer to me was, 'You need to go get vaccinated as soon as you can,'" Crawford said.

Zeng works with cancer patients every day and knows the risks that COVID-19 poses for people whose bodies are already fighting off cancer.

"Cancer takes a toll on your body and takes a toll on your immune system and then all of the anti-cancer treatments take a toll on your immune system, as well. If a patient with cancer is actively going through treatment and they were to catch COVID, they’re at a much higher risk of having serious complications and becoming critically ill from the virus," she said. "The recovery period also often means delays in cancer treatment because your body is busy fighting the virus, it’s busy recovering from the virus and so we’re forced to take a break from treating the cancer and that’s never ideal.”

She said the vaccine is crucial.

"For all the patients who I treat who ask me the question, I've said, 'Yes please, absolutely go ahead and get the vaccine as quickly as you're able to,” said Zeng. “It is indeed safe for them to be vaccinated. Even patients who are actively undergoing treatment, actively receiving radiation treatment, actively receiving chemotherapy, as long as their blood counts are above a certain threshold, it is safe for them to be vaccinated.”

Crawford got his COVID-19 vaccine, not because of his cancer diagnosis, but because he's in the 65 and older crowd.

"It was a no-brainer for me to get myself vaccinated to try to minimize my chance of getting sick,” he said.

In a statement to KING 5, the Washington State Department of Health said, “People who have two or more medical conditions on the CDC’s list are eligible for vaccine in Phase 1B Tier 3. That means if someone has cancer plus another co-morbidity then their projected eligibility date is either April 12 or April 26, depending on their age."

People with cancer and who have no other medical conditions will be eligible in Phase 2 and no date has yet been set, the Department of Health said.

Zeng said that cancer patients should be prioritized sooner than that.

"You count cancer as an underlying condition and so, they should be becoming eligible with tier 3 as well. So, yes, it's a priority that patients with cancer should be vaccinated," Zeng said.

Crawford agrees.

"So, If I can keep myself from getting sick, it's a win for everybody. Absolutely, yes, I think people need to get vaccinated, cancer patients shouldn't hesitate,” Crawford said.

RELATED: VERIFY: Having a medical condition does not guarantee COVID-19 vaccine eligibility