Risk Factors for COVID Death Studied in U.K. Arthritis Patients

Sara Freeman

May 17, 2022

Being identified as someone that was advised to stay at home and shield, or keep away from face-to-face interactions with others, during the COVID-19 pandemic was indicative of an increased risk for dying from COVID-19 within 28 days of infection, a U.K. study of inflammatory arthritis patients versus the general population suggests.

In fact, shielding status was the highest ranked of all the risk factors identified for early mortality from COVID-19, with a hazard ratio of 1.52 (95% confidence interval, 1.40-1.64) comparing people with and without inflammatory arthritis (IA) who had tested positive.

The list of risk factors associated with higher mortality in the IA patients versus the general population also included diabetes (HR, 1.38), smoking (HR, 1.27), hypertension (HR, 1.19), glucocorticoid use (HR, 1.17), and cancer (HR, 1.10), as well as increasing age (HR, 1.08) and body mass index (HR, 1.01).

Also important was the person’s prior hospitalization history, with those needing in-hospital care in the year running up to their admission for COVID-19 associated with a 34% higher risk for death, and being hospitalized previously with a serious infection was associated with a 20% higher risk.

This has more to do people’s overall vulnerability than their IA, suggested the team behind the findings, who also found that the risk of catching COVID-19 was significantly lower among patients with IA than the general population (3.5% vs. 6%), presumably because of shielding.

Examining the Risks for COVID-19 in Real-Life Practice

“COVID-19 has caused over 10 million deaths,” Roxanne Cooksey, PhD, said at the annual meeting of the British Society for Rheumatology. “It’s greatly affected vulnerable individuals, which includes individuals with IA, this is due to their compromised immune system and increased risk of infection and the medications that they take to manage their conditions.

“Previous studies have had mixed results about whether people with IA have an increased risk of poor outcome,” added Cooksey, who is a postdoctoral researcher in the division of infection and immunity at Cardiff (Wales) University.

“So, our research question looks to investigate inflammatory arthritis – that’s rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis – to see whether the conditions themselves or indeed their medications predispose individuals to an increased risk of contracting COVID or even more adverse outcomes.”

Cooksey and colleagues looked specifically at COVID-19 infection rates and outcomes in adults living in Wales during the first year of the pandemic (March 2020 to May 2021). As such they used routinely collected, anonymized health data from the SAIL Databank and performed a retrospective, population-based cohort study. In total, there were 1,966 people with inflammatory arthritis identified as having COVID-19 and 166,602 people without IA but who had COVID-19 in the study population.

As might be expected, people with inflammatory arthritis who tested positive for COVID-19 were older than those testing positive in the general population, at a mean of 62 years versus 46 years. They were also more likely to have been advised to shield (49.4% versus 4.6%), which in the United Kingdom constituted of receiving a letter telling them about the importance of social distancing, wearing a mask when out in public, and quarantining themselves at home whenever possible.

The main outcomes were hospitalizations and mortality within 28 days of COVID-19 infection. Considering the overall inflammatory arthritis population, rates of both outcomes were higher versus the general population. And when the researchers analyzed the risks according to the type of inflammatory arthritis, the associations were not statistically significant in a multivariable analysis for people with any of the inflammatory arthritis diagnoses: rheumatoid arthritis (n = 1,283), psoriatic arthritis (n = 514), or ankylosing spondylitis (n = 246). Some patients had more than one inflammatory arthritis diagnosis.

What Does This All Mean?

Cooksey conceded that there were lots of limitations to the data collected – from misclassification bias to data possibly not have been recorded completely or missing because of the disruption to health care services during the early stages of the pandemic. Patients may have been told to shield but not actually shielded, she observed, and maybe because a lack of testing COVID-19 cases were missed or people could have been asymptomatic or unable to be tested.

“The study supports the role of shielding in inflammatory arthritis,” Cooksey said, particularly in those with RA and the risk factors associated with an increased risk in death. However, that may not mean the entire population, she suggested, saying that “refining the criteria for shielding will help mitigate the negative effects of the entire IA population.”

Senior team member Ernest Choy, MD, added his thoughts, saying that, rather than giving generic shielding recommendations to all IA patients, not everyone has the same risk, so maybe not everyone needs to shield to the same level.

“Psoriatic arthritis patients and ankylosing spondylitis patients are younger, so they really don’t have as high a risk like patients with rheumatoid arthritis,” he said.

Choy, who is professor of rheumatology at the Cardiff Institute of Infection & Immunity, commented that it was not surprising to find that a prior serious infection was a risk for COVID-19 mortality. This risk factor was examined because of the known association between biologic use and the risk for serious infection.

Moreover, he said that, “if you have a serious comorbidity that requires you to get admitted to hospital, that is a reflection of your vulnerability.”

Cooksey and Choy had no relevant conflicts of interest to disclose.

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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