When COVID-19 is suspected or confirmed in a patient with a rheumatic disease, treatment with hydroxychloroquine may be continued, but other treatments may need to be stopped or held temporarily, according to new guidance issued by the American College of Rheumatology.
That includes disease-modifying treatment with antirheumatic drugs such as sulfasalazine, methotrexate, leflunomide, and the Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors, as well as immunosuppressants and non-interleukin (IL)-6 biologics, and this is regardless of how severe the COVID-19 illness is. NSAIDs should also be stopped if there are respiratory symptoms.
The advice is slightly less drastic if someone with stable rheumatic disease has probably been exposed to the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) or are asymptomatic. In those patients, DMARDs may be continued, although there is uncertainty over whether there is a need to temporarily stop methotrexate or leflunomide. Interruption of immunosuppressive, non–IL-6, and JAK inhibitor treatment is advised pending a negative SARS-CoV-2 test result, assuming the patient’s rheumatic disease is stable.
Impetus for ACR COVID-19 guidance
“One of the earliest challenges for rheumatologists during the COVID-19 pandemic was determining how to advise our patients who were taking immunosuppressive medications and were concerned as to whether or not to discontinue their therapy,” ACR President Ellen Gravallese, MD, said in an interview about the ACR Clinical Guidance Document, which is published online in Arthritis & Rheumatology.
“A second challenge was keeping our patients safe from exposure to the virus, while still seeing those patients in person who required office visits,” added Dr. Gravallese, who is chief of the division of rheumatology, inflammation, and immunity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
She continued: “The ACR Clinical Guidance Document was prepared in order to assist rheumatologists with decisions as to how to handle current medications during different phases of a patient’s exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
But with very little evidence available on how to manage COVID-19 patients generally, let alone specifically in those with rheumatic diseases, “it became evident that any recommendations made would need to be done in a thoughtful and organized manner, evaluating the evidence that was available and obtaining the advice of experts in infectious disease, epidemiology, and in the use of biologic and nonbiologic agents for rheumatic disease,” she said.
As such, the ACR convened a task force of 10 rheumatologists and 4 infectious disease specialists from North America to look at how best to manage patients with rheumatic disease during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our charge was to develop a guidance document for the care of adult rheumatic disease patients in the context of COVID-19 and not per se to provide guidance for the treatment of COVID-19,” explained task force member and the corresponding author for the guidance, Ted R. Mikuls, MD, MSPH, of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha.
Dr. Mikuls, who was speaking at a virtual town hall meeting hosted by the ACR on May 6, noted that the guidance was obviously based on the best consensus of the available data and as such represented a “living document” that “would change and be added to” as necessary.