Advice on Treating Rheumatic Diseases From a COVID-19 Epicenter

Kimberly Showalter, MD; Sebastian E. Sattui, MD; Stephen Paget, MD


May 11, 2020

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The COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose an unprecedented challenge to healthcare systems worldwide. In addition to the direct impact of the disease itself, there is a growing concern related to ensuring adequate healthcare utilization and addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, such as those with chronic illness.

Emanuel and colleagues have advocated a framework of fair allocation of resources, led by the principles of equity, maximizing benefits, and prioritizing the vulnerable. In these uncertain times, patients with rheumatic diseases represent a vulnerable population whose health and wellness are particularly threatened, not only by the risk of COVID-19, but also by reduced access to usual medical care (eg, in-person clinic visits), potential treatment interruptions (eg, planned infusion therapies), and the ongoing shortage of hydroxychloroquine, to name a few.

As rheumatologists, we are now tasked with the development of best practices for caring for patients with rheumatic conditions in this uncertain, evolving, and nearly data-free landscape. We also must maintain an active role as advocates for our patients to help them navigate this pandemic. Herein, we discuss our approach to caring for patients with rheumatic diseases within our practice in New York City, an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Communication With Patients

Maintaining an open line of communication with our patients (by phone, patient portal, telemedicine, as so on) has become more essential than ever. It is through these communications that we best understand our patients' concerns and provide support and personalized treatment decisions. The most common questions we have received during recent weeks are:

  1. Should I stop my medication to lower my risk for infection?

  2. Are my current symptoms due to coronavirus, and what should I do next?

  3. Where can I fill my hydroxychloroquine prescription?

The American College of Rheumatology (ACR) has deployed a number of task forces aimed at advocating for rheumatologists and patients with rheumatic diseases and is doing an exemplary job guiding us. For patients, several other organizations (eg, CreakyJoints, Arthritis Foundation, Lupus Research Alliance, Vasculitis Foundation, Scleroderma Foundation) are also providing accurate information regarding hygiene practices, social distancing, management of medications, and other guidance related to specific rheumatic diseases. In line with ACR recommendations, we encourage a personalized, shared decision-making process with each of our patients.

Patients With Rheumatic Disease at Risk for COVID-19 Infection

First, for rheumatology patients who have no COVID-19 symptoms, our management approach is individualized. For patients who are able to maintain social distancing, we have not routinely stopped immunosuppressive medications, including disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) and biologic agents. However, we discuss the risks and benefits of continuing immunosuppressive therapy during this time with all of our patients.

In certain cases of stable, non-life-threatening disease, we may consider spacing or temporarily interrupting immunosuppressive therapy, using individualized, shared decision-making. Yet, it is important to recognize that for some patients, achieving adequate disease control can require a substantial amount of time.

Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that disease flares requiring steroid therapy may increase the risk for infection even more, keeping in mind that in some rheumatic diseases, high disease activity itself can increase infection risk. We advise patients who are continuing therapy to maintain at least a 1-month supply of their medications.

Decisions regarding infusions in the hospital and outpatient settings are similarly made on an individual basis, weighing the risk for virus exposure against that of disease flare. The more limited availability of appropriately distanced infusion chairs in some already overburdened systems must be considered in this discussion. We agree with the ACR, whose infusion guidance recommends that "possible changes might include temporary interruption of therapy, temporary initiation of a bridge therapy such as a less potent anti-inflammatory or immune modulating agent, or temporary change to an alternative therapy."

We also reinforce recommended behaviors for preventing infection, including social distancing, frequent handwashing, and avoiding touching one's face.

Patients With Rheumatic Disease and Confirmed or Suspected COVID-19 Infection

With the worldwide spread of COVID-19, patients with rheumatic diseases will undoubtedly be among those exposed and infected. Though current data are limited, within a cohort from China, 1% had an autoimmune disease. Testing recommendations to confirm COVID-19 and decision guidelines for outpatient versus inpatient management are evolving, and we consult the most up-to-date, local information regarding testing as individual potential cases arise.

For patients who develop COVID-19 and are currently taking DMARDs and biologics, we recommend that they discontinue these medications, with the exception of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ). HCQ may be continued because its mechanism is not expected to worsen infection, and it plays a key role in the management of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). In addition, in vitro antiviral effects have been reported and there is growing interest for its use in the management of COVID-19. However, there are conflicting data and methodologic concerns about the nonrandomized human studies that suggest a benefit of HCQ against COVID-19.

The decision regarding management of glucocorticoids in the setting of new COVID-19 infection is challenging and should be individualized. At present, expert panels recommend against the use of glucocorticoids among individuals with COVID-19 who do not have acute respiratory distress syndrome. However, adrenal insufficiency must be considered among patients with COVID-19 who are treated with chronic glucocorticoids. Again, these decisions should be made on an individual, case-by-case basis.

Implications of a Hydroxychloroquine Shortage

The use of HCQ in rheumatology is supported by years of research. Particularly in SLE, HCQ has been shown to reduce disease activity and damage and to improve survival. Furthermore, for pregnant patients with SLE, numerous studies have demonstrated the safety and benefit of HCQ for both the mother and fetus; thus, it is strongly recommended. By contrast, despite the growing interest for HCQ in patients with COVID-19, the evidence is inconclusive and limited.

The ACR suggests that decisions regarding HCQ dose reductions to extend individual patients' supplies should be tailored to each patient's need and risk in the unfortunate setting of medication shortages. Even in patients with stable SLE, however, disease flares at 6 months are more common among individuals who discontinue HCQ. Of note, these flares may incorporate novel and severe disease manifestations.

Unfortunately, other therapeutic options for SLE are associated with more adverse effects (including increased susceptibility to infection) or are largely unavailable (eg, quinacrine). Thus, we strive to continue standard dosing of HCQ for patients who are currently flaring or recently flared, and we make shared, individualized decisions for those patients with stable disease as the HCQ shortage evolves.

Future Research on COVID-19 and Rheumatic Disease

While we might expect that an underlying rheumatic disease and associated treatments may predispose individuals to developing COVID-19, current data do not indicate which, if any, rheumatic diseases and associated therapies convey the greatest risk.

To address this uncertainty, the rheumatology community created the COVID-19 Global Rheumatology Alliance, an international effort to initiate and maintain a de-identified patient registry for individuals with rheumatic disease who develop COVID-19. These efforts will allow us to gain essential insights regarding which patient demographics, underlying diseases, and medications are most common among patients who develop COVID-19.

This alliance encourages rheumatologists and those caring for patients with rheumatic diseases to report their patient cases to this registry. As we are confronted with making management decisions with a scarcity of supporting data, efforts like these will improve our ability to make individualized treatment recommendations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented us all with unprecedented challenges. As rheumatologists, it is our duty to lead our patients through this uncharted territory with close communication, information, advocacy, and personalized treatment decisions. Each of these is central to the management of rheumatology patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the growing interest in immunomodulatory therapies for the complications of this infection, we have the unique opportunity to share our expertise, recommendations, and caution with our colleagues. As clinicians and scientists, we must advocate for data collection and studies that will allow us to develop novel, data-driven disease management approaches while providing the best care possible for our patients.

Stephen Paget, MD, is physician-in-chief emeritus for the Center for Rheumatology at Hospital for Special Surgery.

Kimberly Showalter, MD, is a third-year rheumatology fellow at Hospital for Special Surgery.

Sebastian E. Sattui, MD, is a third-year rheumatology and 1-year vasculitis fellow at Hospital for Special Surgery.

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