COVID-19 Vaccination Recommended for Rheumatology Patients

Laird Harrison

February 24, 2021

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

People with rheumatic diseases should get vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 as soon as possible, the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) recommends.

"It may be that people with rheumatic diseases are at increased risk of developing COVID or serious COVID-related complications," said Jonathan Hausmann, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, in an ACR podcast. "So the need to prevent COVID-19 is incredibly important in this group of patients."

The guidelines recommend a delay in vaccination only in rare circumstances, such as for patients with very severe illness or who have recently been administered rituximab, said Jeffrey Curtis, MD, MPH, lead author of the guidelines, in the podcast.

"Our members have been inundated with questions and concerns from their patients on whether they should receive the vaccine," said ACR President David Karp, MD, PhD, in a press release.

So the ACR convened a panel of nine rheumatologists, two infectious disease specialists, and two public health experts. Over the course of 8 weeks, the task force reviewed the literature and agreed on recommendations. The organization posted a summary of the guidelines on its website after its board of directors approved it February 8. The paper is pending journal peer review.

Some Risks Are Real

The task force confined its research to the COVID-19 vaccines being offered by Pfizer and Moderna because they are currently the only ones approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. It found no reason to distinguish between the two vaccines in its recommendations.

Because little research has directly addressed the question concerning COVID-19 vaccination for patients with rheumatic diseases, the task force extrapolated from data on other vaccinations in people with rheumatic disease and on the COVID-19 vaccinations in other populations.

It analyzed reports that other types of vaccination, such as for influenza, triggered flares of rheumatic conditions. "It is really individual case reports or small cohorts where there may be a somewhat higher incidence of flare, but it's usually not very large in its magnitude nor duration," Curtis said.

The task force also considered the possibility that vaccinations could lead to a new autoimmune disorder, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome or Bell palsy. The risk is real, the task force decided, but not significant enough to influence their recommendations.

Likewise, in immunocompromised people, vaccinations with live virus, such as those for shingles, might trigger the infection the vaccination is meant to prevent. But this can't happen with the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines because they contain messenger RNA instead of live viruses, Curtis said.

Although it might be optimal to administer the vaccines when rheumatic diseases are quiescent, the urgency of getting vaccinated overrides that consideration, Curtis said. "By and large, there was a general consensus to not want to delay vaccination until somebody was stable and doing great, because you don't know how long that's going to be," he said.

How Well Does It Work?

One unanswered question is whether the COVID-19 vaccines work as well for patients with rheumatic diseases. The task force was reassured by data showing efficacy across a range of subgroups, including some with immunosenescence, Curtis said. "But until we have data in rheumatology patients, we're just not going to know," he said.

The guidelines specify that some drug regimens be modified when patients are vaccinated.

  • For patients taking rituximab, vaccination should be delayed, but only for those who are able to maintain safe social distancing to reduce the risk for COVID-19 exposure, Curtis said. "If somebody has just gotten rituximab recently, it might be more ideal to complete the vaccine series about 2 to 4 weeks before the next rituximab dose," he said. "So if you are giving that therapy, say, at 6-month intervals, if you could vaccinate them at around month 5 from the most recent rituximab cycle, that might be more ideal."

  • The guidance calls for withholding JAK inhibitors for a week after each vaccine dose is administered.

  • It calls for holding SQ abatacept 1 week prior and 1 week after the first COVID-19 vaccine dose, with no interruption after the second dose.

  • For abatacept IV, clinicians should "time vaccine administration so that the first vaccination will occur 4 weeks after abatacept infusion (ie, the entire dosing interval), and postpone the subsequent abatacept infusion by 1 week (ie, a 5-week gap in total)." It recommends no medication adjustment for the second vaccine dose.

  • For cyclophosphamide, the guidance recommends timing administration to occur about a week after each vaccine dose, when feasible.

None of this advice should supersede clinical judgment, Curtis said.

Laird Harrison writes about science, health and culture. His work has appeared in magazines, newspapers , and online publications. He is at work on a novel about alternate realities in physics. Harrison has taught writing at San Francisco State University, UC Berkeley Extension and the Writers Grotto. Visit him at lairdharrison.comor follow him on Twitter: @LairdH.

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