The COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose an unprecedented challenge to health care systems worldwide. In addition to the direct impact of the disease itself, there is a growing concern related to ensuring adequate health care utilization and addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, such as those with chronic illness.
Emanuel et al. 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 (e.g., in-person clinic visits), potential treatment interruptions (e.g., 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, and 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:
- Should I stop my medication to lower my risk for infection?
- Are my current symptoms caused by coronavirus, and what should I do next?
- Where can I fill my hydroxychloroquine prescription?
The American College of Rheumatology 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 (e.g., CreakyJoints, Arthritis Foundation, Lupus Research Alliance, Vasculitis Foundation, and 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.