Infusion center directors shuffle treatment services in the era of COVID-19


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.”

Dr. Christopher R. Phillips Rheumatologist, Paducah Rheumatolgy, Paducah, Ky.

Dr. Christopher R. Phillips

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.”


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