ACR Releases Guidance on Rheumatic Diseases During Pandemic

Sara Freeman

May 13, 2020

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

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.

General Recommendations for Adult Rheumatic Disease Management

In terms of general recommendations for the management of adult rheumatic disease patients, Dr. Mikuls said that six statements had been made "specific to risk assessment, prevention of infection, and best practices related to glucocorticoid use and the use of ACE [angiotensin-converting enzyme] inhibitors and ARBs [angiotensin II receptor blockers] during the pandemic."

For example, general advice is to counsel patients to keep up general preventive measures such as social distancing and regular hand washing, reducing the number of in-person health care visits, and undertaking other means to try to prevent potential SARS-CoV-2 exposure. As for general treatment advice, glucocorticoids should be used at their lowest doses possible and should not be abruptly stopped, and antihypertensive treatment should be used as indicated.

Additional guidance statements include those that address the treatment of patients with stable rheumatic disease in the absence of infection or known exposure to SARS-CoV-2, with guidance specific to the treatment of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and those with newly diagnosed or active rheumatic disease.

SLE and Inflammatory Arthritis Recommendations

"There are several sections within the guidance document that address the treatment of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus during this pandemic," Dr. Gravallese pointed out. "In general, it is recommended that lupus patients who are currently taking hydroxychloroquine can remain on the therapy prior to and during infection and that newly diagnosed patients with lupus can be placed on this medication at full dose. It is recommended that pregnant patients with lupus remain on therapy with this drug."

She also observed that, for the treatment of active inflammatory arthritis, "the recommendations were written to address specific medications that could be used in this setting. In general, the task force recommendations were guided by the importance of controlling inflammation prior to exposure to the virus, even during this pandemic.

Guidance Raises Questions

During the ACR's town hall meeting, the task force answered several questions raised by the guidance, such as the reasoning behind recommending that the use of traditional DMARDs be discontinued in patients with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Dr. Mikuls observed: "Maybe if you just read the guidance statements it isn't terribly intuitive." There was a lot of discussion about whether or not conventional DMARDs were immunosuppressive, and even though they may not have such effects, it was decided to err on the side of caution.

"I think the task force felt that, with a COVID-19–positive patient, there is a concern of potentially confusing adverse effects related to medicines or conflate those with problems from the infection," he said. Although rare, examples of those issues could be drug-induced hypersensitivity, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, or gastrointestinal side effects of hepatitis, all of which have been described in COVID-19. "Not only could it cause confusion, but it could maybe worsen those sequalae of COVID-19," he said.

"I think the other part of this answer was that the panel really felt that the risk in terms of the flaring of the underlying rheumatic disease was likely to be pretty low given the finite time frame you'd be taking about – usually a time frame of 2-3 weeks you'd be holding the agent – so I think that is really why the task force ended up with that recommendation."

Similarly, for the JAK inhibitors, the decision was to err on the side of caution when COVID-19 was suspected or confirmed. "Not so much because of the risk of thromboembolic disease, but concerns over immunosuppression that these drugs carry with them and also the fact the JAK inhibitors are probably inhibitors of type 1 interferons, which play a significant role in viral immunity and could potentially have a negative impact," said Stanley Cohen, MD, who practices rheumatology in the Dallas area.

"On the flipside, there is interest in some of the JAK inhibitors as a potential treatment for COVID-19," Dr. Cohen said, referring to anecdotal evidence for baricitinib (Olumiant).

Michael Weinblatt, MD, of Brigham and Women's Hospital, addressed the recent concern over the use of NSAIDs by the public.

"There's been a lot in the lay press that NSAIDs – because of the effects on receptors in the lung – could lead to deleterious outcomes in patients with COVID and there's very little data to support this.

"We did recommend that NSAIDs be held in the hospitalized patient and that wasn't because of the COVID-19 issue, it really was just medical practice, and we didn't want to confound the care of these really sick patients with potential toxicities from NSAIDs. But as far as routine rheumatological care in your outpatients, we did not recommend that nonsteroidals be stopped if they were tolerated."

One part of the guidance that might already need revision is the recommendation on the continued use of hydroxychloroquine in patients who develop COVID-19.

"Our guidance document says it's OK; we were all in very strong agreement to continue hydroxychloroquine in our patients with COVID-19 because at that point, just a couple of weeks ago, we thought it was part of the potential treatment," Karen Costenbader, MD, MPH, of Brigham and Women's Hospital, said during the town hall meeting.

"Now the pendulum has swung the other way, and we're worried about maybe we shouldn't be continuing it because COVID-19 patients will be getting many other medications," Dr. Costenbader said, and these may affect the QT-interval. "They will not be getting azithromycin because the pendulum swung the other way on that one too, but definitely on many other medications when they are sick."

Potentially, she added, "if the rheumatic disease is under good control the inpatient physicians could decide whether they should continue [hydroxychloroquine] or not. If the COVID-19 is a mild disease, I would say we probably could continue in accordance with what we put in the document, but we will have to revisit this as well."

Guidance Is a "Living Document"

"We will be providing updates to the Clinical Guidance Document as the need arises," Dr. Gravallese emphasized. While the general recommendations are unlikely to change very much, "the task force will be interested in seeing the results of all new data, but the results of randomized, clinical trials will be particularly important as they become available," she said. In particular, randomized, controlled trials of glucocorticoids and IL-6 receptor blockade for use in COVID-19 will be of great importance.

"In this initial document, we could not take on all of the medical scenarios our members will face. For example, we could not take on recommendations for the pediatric population as this group of patients has a very different response than adults to the SARS-CoV-2 virus," Dr. Gravallese acknowledged. The plan is to provide guidance for that group of patients soon.

In addition, the ACR Executive Committee has appointed a Practice and Advocacy Task Force that will "address issues rheumatologists face on the practice side, including advice regarding how to effectively use telemedicine, address the frequency and safety of infusions, determine urgent versus nonurgent issues that would or would not require face-to-face visits, and help with financial challenges."

The American College of Rheumatology supported the guidance-development process. Dr. Mikuls, Dr. Weinblatt, Dr. Cohen, and Dr. Costenbader each disclosed research support or consultancies with multiple pharmaceutical companies. Dr. Gravallese had no disclosures.

SOURCE: Mikuls TR et al. Arthritis Rheumatol. 2020 Apr 29. doi: 10.1002/art.41301.

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