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Rheumatoid Arthritis and COVID-19: Are You At a Greater Risk?

Posted on April 07, 2020
Medically reviewed by
Siddharth Tambar, M.D.
Article written by
Christine Sprunger

The past several weeks have been unprecedented in our lifetime. Social distancing, sheltering in place, and overburdened hospitals are disconcerting for anyone. Add in managing rheumatoid arthritis on top of trying to protect yourself from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), and things can feel even more challenging.

Are you at greater risk if you have RA? Should you keep taking your RA medications? These are the questions members of myRAteam are asking now. We reached out to Dr. Siddarth Tambar, a rheumatologist and leader of Chicago Arthritis and Regenerative Medicine, and asked him what people with RA need to know in the era of COVID-19.

This article addresses:

  • Whether people with RA are at increased risk for COVID-19.
  • The importance of keeping RA symptoms under control during this pandemic.
  • The impact of RA medications on the risk of contracting COVID-19.
  • Possible Plaquenil (Hydroxychloroquine) shortages.
  • Tips for managing your RA and your health.

Does RA Raise My Risk for COVID-19?

In a March 27, 2020 interview with myRAteam, Dr. Siddharth Tambar talked about the risks of COVID-19 for people facing rheumatoid arthritis. Dr. Tambar explained:

  1. If you have RA and are treating it with medications, you may be at higher risk for infection generally. This is the case for many people with rheumatological and autoimmune conditions. People with RA should take extra precautions to avoid contact with people who might have COVID-19.
  2. The benefits of keeping your RA symptoms under control with medication likely outweigh the potential added risk of infection. If your RA is flaring, that can mean even greater risks to you.

“The nature of any sort of chronic active condition is that it makes you more susceptible to any other kind of infectious issue,” Dr. Tambar said. “From the standpoint of having worse outcomes, however, if a condition is under control, we think that the risk [of contracting COVID-19] is really the same as the general population.”

According to the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, “It is important to keep your RA as well controlled as possible. If you come off your medication, you have a very high likelihood of going into RA flare.”

Flares are not only hard on your body, but also might require that you visit a congested hospital or doctor’s office — putting you at greater risk for infection. Given how overextended health care services can get during pandemics, it is a good idea to avoid unnecessary appointments. Contact your doctor via phone and telemedicine first about any questions or concerns.

Do My RA Medications Put Me at Greater Risk for COVID-19?

People with RA are generally prescribed medications from a few different categories. Common treatments for RA include:

Dr. Tambar advises continuing to take your medications if you can and if your doctor feels that is the right strategy for you. He noted, “While there's a little bit higher risk being on the medication, the benefits are that your immune system is under control.” That is preferable to “having a ragingly active condition, which on its own puts you at higher risk for infections."

Plaquenil (Hydroxychloroquine) Supply and COVID-19

The antimalarial medication Plaquenil (Hydroxychloroquine) has been in the news lately. After President Trump cited these medications as a potential treatment for COVID-19, many people with RA began to have trouble filling their prescriptions. And on March 29, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave emergency approval to distribute this drug to hospitals for COVID-19 care.

Dr. Tambar noted that some of his patients are beginning to experience a shortage in Plaquenil and its generic, Hydroxychloroquine. “What I'm hearing from patients, what I'm hearing from pharmacies,” he said, “is that either they're not being given a full prescription — let's say a full 90 days [and] maybe they're only getting 30 days. In some cases, only 20 days. Or they're being told, ‘Hey, we just don't have the medication on hand. You're going to have to wait.’”

He continued, “It's challenging because we have a legitimate reason for [using Plaquenil] in a subset of our autoimmune patients. And definitely, I am starting to hear that there is some limitation in supply.”

As a result, manufacturers have recently committed to ramping up production of Hydroxychloroquine to meet the expected increase in demand. If you are concerned that shortages of Hydroxychloroquine may affect you, talk to your pharmacy and health care providers.

Corticosteroids and COVID-19

Keeping your RA under control with medications may help you avoid having to take corticosteroids. According to Dr. Tambar, corticosteroids may be problematic for people with RA. “Steroids, at a high dose for a prolonged period of time, put you at risk for a dramatically higher risk for infections than just the meds that we're using routinely for these autoimmune conditions,” he said.

The American College of Rheumatology reminds individuals with RA to talk to their rheumatologist or a rheumatology professional prior to discontinuing any of their medications. Certain drugs, such as steroids, that have been used on a long-term basis cannot just be stopped. People have to slowly taper off of them, and this process requires their doctor’s medical input. In an article in Creaky Joints, Dr. Nilanjana Bose warned, “Prednisone at higher doses [20 milligrams or more] can be severely immunosuppressive but they cannot be tapered off fast.”

Again, it’s important to speak with your doctor about what, if any, changes you should make.

DMARDs and COVID-19

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) have risks of infection associated with them. However, when evaluating the risk of COVID-19, Dr. Tambar believes that an individual’s overall health matters more than the infection risk of taking a DMARD. He recommends people living with RA consider these questions:

  • Is your RA under control? (If not, work with your doctor to use medications to bring your symptoms under control.)
  • Is your doctor able to minimize any steroids you are taking?
  • Are you taking the right precautions?
  • Are you being monitored safely?

The British Society for Rheumatology reminds people to consult with a doctor before making any changes to their treatments. Before stopping any medication, you will want to develop a transition plan with your doctor.

NSAIDs and COVID-19

NSAIDs are often used to treat RA. Rumors have circulated that people with COVID-19 should not take Ibuprofen, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug. Both the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency have debunked this myth.

Dr. Tambar cautioned that people with RA should consult their primary care physician or rheumatologist, as always, before making any changes or starting any new medications.

Is It Safe to Go to an Infusion Center?

People with RA may need to consider whether they have to leave home to receive medications. Some treatments, such as Remicade (Infliximab), may be given by infusion at a clinic. If that is the case for you, it is important to check with your doctor to see if there are other options available. Take precautions in advance of any upcoming appointments, including monitoring your own health, considering how you will physically get to your appointment (your own car or public transportation), and practicing social distance by leaving space between yourself and other people at a clinic.

Dr. Tambar mentioned some of the best practices in his own clinic, including minimizing routine in-person follow-up appointments, rotating staff so they are not working in the clinic for as long, and not filling the entire infusion room. These are practices to consider asking your health care provider about before your appointment.

Tips for Managing Your Health During the COVID-19 Outbreak

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that individuals in high-risk groups avoid attending public events. The advice from the CDC is changing on a daily basis. You can find the latest updates and guidance from the CDC about COVID-19 here.

In general, if you have a fever or you are unsure if you’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 — or if you have any questions about how you are feeling — make sure you reach out via telephone or online portal to your health care provider. Medicare is now covering telehealth services to treat COVID-19 (and "other medically reasonable purposes").

In addition to safety measures to protect one’s health, people with RA may want to develop a contingency plan in case they are unable to leave their home. Steps to consider include:

  • Contacting your health care provider or health insurance company about obtaining an extra supply of necessary medications.
  • Setting up a mail-order service for medication, if available.
  • Stocking up on over-the-counter medications to treat fever, cough, and cold symptoms — as well as necessities such as tissues.
  • Ordering groceries or supplies through Amazon or another delivery service to minimize public contact.
  • Having enough household items and groceries on hand to be prepared to stay at home for an extended period of time.
  • If you have people who come in to help, such as a relative or home health aide, making sure they are washing their hands properly and asking what steps they are taking to avoid contracting COVID-19.
  • Making a plan to reach out to friends or loved ones by phone or video chat to minimize feelings of isolation. As always, myRAteam offers a support group of nearly 100,000 other people facing the same conditions as you, always available online.

How are you getting through this trying time? Do you have tips or recommendations on how to prepare? Join the conversation below.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Siddharth Tambar, M.D. is a rheumatologist in Chicago, Illinois. He is the owner of the clinic Chicago Arthritis and Regenerative Medicine. Learn more about him here.
Christine Sprunger has a passion for helping people with chronic conditions explore and understand their treatment options, so they can make the best choices about their care. Learn more about her here.

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