Infusion Center Directors Shuffle Treatment Services in the Era of COVID-19

Doug Brunk

April 13, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's  Coronavirus Resource Center.

It's anything but business as usual for clinicians who oversee office-based infusion centers, as they scramble to maintain services for patients considered to be at heightened risk for severe illness should they become infected with COVID-19.

"For many reasons, the guidance for patients right now is that they stay on their medications," Max I. Hamburger, MD, a managing partner at Rheumatology Associates of Long Island (N.Y.), said in an interview. "Some have decided to stop the drug, and then they call us up to tell us that they're flaring. The beginning of a flare is tiredness and other things. Now they're worried: Are they tired because of the disease, or are they tired because they have COVID-19?"

With five office locations located in a region considered to be the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, Dr. Hamburger and his colleagues are hypervigilant about screening patients for symptoms of the virus before they visit one of the three practice locations that provide infusion services. This starts with an automated phone system that reminds patients of their appointment time.

"Part of that robocall now has some questions like, 'Do you have any symptoms of COVID-19?' 'Are you running a fever?' 'Do you have any reason to worry about yourself? If so, please call us.' " The infusion nurses are also calling the patients in advance of their appointment to check on their status. "When they get to the office location, we ask them again about their general health and check their temperature," said Dr. Hamburger, who is also founder and executive chairman of United Rheumatology, which is a nationwide rheumatology care management services organization with 650 members in 39 states.

"We're doing everything we can to talk to them about their own state of health and to question them about what I call extended paranoia: like, 'Who are you living with?' 'Who are you hanging out with?' 'What are all the six degrees of separation here?' I want to know what the patient's husband did last night. I want to know where their kids were over this past week, et cetera. We do everything we can to see if there's anybody who might have had the slightest [contact with someone who has COVID-19]. Because if I lose my infusion nurse, then I'm up the creek."

The infusion nurse wears scrubs, a face mask, and latex gloves. She and her staff are using hand sanitizer and cleaning infusion equipment with sanitizing wipes as one might do in a surgical setting. "Every surface is wiped down between patients, and the nurse is changing gloves between patients," said Dr. Hamburger, who was founding president of the New York State Rheumatology Society before retiring from that post in 2017. "Getting masks has been tough. We're doing the best we can there. We're not gloving patients but we're masking patients."

As noted in guidance from the American College of Rheumatology and other medical organizations, following the CDC's recommendation to stay at home during the pandemic has jump-started conversations between physicians and their patients about modifying the time interval between infusions. "If they have been doing well for the last 9 months, we're having a conversation such as 'Maybe instead of getting your Orencia every 4 weeks, maybe we'll push it out to 5 weeks, or maybe we'll push the Enbrel out to 10 days and the Humira out 3 weeks, et cetera," Dr. Hamburger said.

"One has to be very careful about when you do that, because you don't want the patient to flare up because it's hard to get them in, but it is a natural opportunity to look at this. We're seeing how we can optimize the dose, but I don't want to send the message that we're doing this because it changes the patient's outcome, because there's zero evidence that it's a good thing to do in terms of resistance."

At the infusion centers operated by the Johns Hopkins division of gastroenterology and hepatology, Baltimore, clinicians are not increasing the time interval between infusions for patients at this time. "We're keeping them as they are, to prevent any flare-ups. Our main goal is to keep patients in remission and out of the hospital," said Alyssa M. Parian, MD, medical director of the infusion center and associate director of the university's GI department.

"With Remicade specifically, there's also the risk of developing antibodies if you delay treatment, so we're basically keeping everyone on track. We're not recommending a switch from infusions to injectables, and we also are not speeding up infusions, either. Before this pandemic happened, we had already tried to decrease all Remicade infusions from 2 hours to 1 hour for patient satisfaction. The Entyvio is a pretty quick, 30-minute infusion."

To accommodate patients during this era of physical distancing measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Parian and her infusion nurse manager Elisheva Weiser converted one of their two outpatient GI centers into an infusion-only suite with 12 individual clinic rooms.

As soon as patients exit the second-floor elevator, they encounter a workstation prior to entering the office where they are screened for COVID-19 symptoms and their temperature is taken. "If any symptoms or temperature comes back positive, we're asking them to postpone their treatment and consider COVID testing," she said.

Instead of one nurse looking after four patients in one room during infusion therapy, now one nurse looks after two patients who are in rooms next to each other. All patients and all staff wear masks while in the center.

"We always have physician oversight at our infusion centers," Dr. Parian said. "We are trying to maintain a 'COVID-free zone.' Therefore, no physicians who have served in a hospital ward are allowed in the infusion suite because we don't want any carriers of COVID-19. Same with the nurses. Additionally, we limit the staff within the suite to only those who are essential and don't allow anyone to perform telemedicine or urgent clinic visits in this location. Our infusion center staff are on a strict protocol to not come in with any symptoms at all. They are asked to take their temperature before coming in to work."

She and her colleagues drew from recommendations from the joint GI society message on COVID-19, the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, and the International Organization for the Study of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IOIBD) to inform their approach in serving patients during this unprecedented time. "We went as conservative as possible because these are immunosuppressed patients," she said.

One patient on her panel who receives an infusion every 8 weeks tested positive for COVID-19 between infusions, but was not hospitalized. Dr. Parian said that person will only be treated 14 days after the all symptoms disappear. "That person will wear a mask and will be infused in a separate room," she said.

In Aventura, Fla., Norman B. Gaylis, MD, and his colleagues at Arthritis & Rheumatic Disease Specialties are looking into shutting down their infusion services during the time period that local public health officials consider to be the peak level of exposure to COVID-19. "We've tried to work around that, and bring people in a little early," said Dr. Gaylis, medical director of rheumatology and infusion services at the practice. "We've done our best to mitigate the risk [of exposure] as much as possible." This includes staggering their caseload by infusing 5 patients at a time, compared with the 15 patients at a time they could treat during prepandemic conditions.

"Everyone is at least 20 feet apart," said Dr. Gaylis, who is a member of the American College of Rheumatology Board of Directors. "While we don't have the kind of protective garments you might see in an ICU, we still are gowning, gloving, and masking our staff, and trying to practice sterile techniques as much as we can."

The pandemic has caused him to reflect more broadly on the way he and his colleagues deliver care for patients on infusion therapy. "We see patients who really want their treatment because they feel it's helpful and beneficial," he said. "There are also patients who may truly be in remission who could stop [infusion therapy]. We could possibly extend the duration of their therapy, try and push it back."

Dr. Gaylis emphasized that any discussion about halting infusion therapy requires clinical, serological, and ideally even MRI evidence that the disease is in a dormant state. "You wouldn't stop treatment in someone who is showing signs in their blood that their disease is still active," he said. "You're using all those parameters in that conversation."

In his clinical opinion, now is not the time to switch patients to self-injectable agents as a perceived matter of convenience. "I don't really think that's a good idea because self-injectables are different," Dr. Gaylis said. "You're basically switching treatment patterns. The practicality of getting a specialty pharmacy to switch, the insurance companies to cover it, and determine copay for it, is a burden on patients. That's why I'm against it, because you're starting a whole new process and problem."

One patient tested positive for COVID-19 about 3 weeks after an infusion at the facility. "That does lead to a point: Have my staff been tested? We have not had the tests available to us," Dr. Gaylis said. "One provider had a contact with someone with COVID-19 and stayed home for 2 weeks. That person tested negative. Soon we are going to receive a kit that will allow us to measure IgM and IgG COVID-19 antibodies. Because we're going to be closed for 2 weeks, measuring us now would be a great way to handle it."

In rural Western Kentucky, Christopher R. Phillips, MD, and his colleagues at Paducah Rheumatology have arranged for "drive-by" injections for some of their higher-risk patients who require subcutaneous administration of biologic agents. "We have them call us when they're in the parking lot, and we give them the treatment while they sit in their car," said Dr. Phillips, who chairs the ACR Insurance Subcommittee and is a member of the ACR COVID-19 Practice and Advocacy Task Force.

For patients who require infusions, they've arranged three chairs in the clinic to be at least 6 feet apart, and moved the fourth chair into a separate room. "My infusion nurse knows these patients well; we're a small community," he said. "She checks in with them the day before to screen for any symptoms of infection and asks them to call when they get here. A lot of them wait in their car to be brought in. She'll bring them in, screen for infection symptoms, and check their temperature.

"She and the receptionist are masked and gloved, and disinfect aggressively between patients. The other thing we are trying to be on top of is making sure that everyone's insurance coverage is active when they come in, in light of the number of people who have been laid off or had changes in their employment."

Dr. Phillips has considered increasing the infusion time interval for some patients, but not knowing when current physical distancing guidelines will ease up presents a conundrum.

"If I have a patient coming in today, and their next treatment is due in a month, I don't know how to say that, if we stretch the infusion to 2 months, that things are going to be better," he said. "For some very well-controlled patients and/or high-risk patients, that is something we've done: stretch the interval or skip a treatment. For most patients, our default is to stick with the normal schedule. We feel that, for most patients who have moderate to severe underlying rheumatic disease, the risk of disease flare and subsequent need for steroids may be a larger risk than the treatment itself, though that is an individualized decision."

To date, Dr. Phillips has not treated a patient who has recovered from COVID-19, but the thought of that scenario gives him pause. "There is some literature suggesting these patients may asymptomatically shed virus for some time after they've clinically recovered, but we don't really know enough about that," he said. "If I had one of those patients, I'd probably be delaying them for a longer period of time, and I'd be looking for some guidance from the literature on postsymptomatic viral shedding."

In the meantime, the level of anxiety that many of his patients express during this pandemic is palpable. "They really are between a rock and a hard place," Dr. Phillips said. "If they come off their effective treatment, they risk flare of a disease that can be life or limb threatening. And yet, because of their disease and their treatment, they're potentially at increased risk for serious illness if they become infected with COVID-19. We look for ways to try to reassure patients and to comfort them, and work with them to make the best of the situation."

This article first appeared on MDedge.com.

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