Management of pediatric rheumatic disease during the pandemic
The COVID-19 clinical guidance for managing pediatric rheumatic disease grew from the work of the North American Pediatric Rheumatology Clinical Guidance Task Force, which included seven pediatric rheumatologists, two pediatric infectious disease physicians, one adult rheumatologist, and one pediatric nurse practitioner. The general guidance covers usual preventive measures for reducing risk for COVID-19 infection, the recommendation that children continue to receive recommended vaccines unless contraindicated by medication, and routine in-person visits for ophthalmologic surveillance of those with a history of uveitis or at high risk for chronic uveitis. The guidance also notes the risk of mental health concerns, such as depression and anxiety, related to quarantine and the pandemic.
The top recommendation is initiation or continuation of all medications necessary to control underlying disease, including NSAIDs, hydroxychloroquine, ACE inhibitors/angiotensin II receptor blockers, colchicine, conventional disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (cDMARDs), biologic DMARDs, and targeted synthetic DMARDs. Even patients who may have had exposure to COVID-19 or who have an asymptomatic COVID-19 infection should continue to take these medications with the exception of ACEi/ARBs.
In those with pediatric rheumatic disease who have a symptomatic COVID-19 infection, “NSAIDs, HCQ, and colchicine may be continued, if necessary, to control underlying disease,” as can interleukin (IL)-1 and IL-6 inhibitors, but “cDMARDs, bDMARDs [except IL-1 and IL-6 inhibitors] and tsDMARDs should be temporarily delayed or withheld,” according to the guidance. Glucocorticoids can be continued at the lowest possible dose to control disease.
“There’s nothing in the literature that suggests people who have rheumatic disease, especially children, and people who are on these medications, really are at increased risk for COVID-19,” Dr. Wahezi said. “That’s why we didn’t want people to be overcautious in stopping medications when the main priority is to control their disease.”
She noted some experts’ speculations that these medications may actually benefit patients with rheumatic disease who develop a COVID-19 infection because the medications keep the immune response in check. “If you allow them to have this dysregulated immune response and have active disease, you’re potentially putting them at greater risk,” Dr. Wahezi said, although she stressed that inadequate evidence exists to support these speculations right now.
Lack of evidence has been the biggest challenge all around with developing this guidance, she said.
“Because this is such an unprecedented situation and because people are so desperate to find treatments both for the illness and to protect those at risk for it, there are lots of people trying to put evidence out there, but it may not be the best-quality evidence,” Dr. Wahezi said.
Insufficient evidence also drove the group’s determination that “SARS-CoV-2 antibody testing is not useful in informing on the history of infection or risk of reinfection,” as the guidance states. Too much variability in the assays exist, Dr. Wahezi said, and, further, it’s unclear what the clinical significance of a positive test would be.
“We didn’t want anyone to feel they had to make clinical decisions based on the results of that antibody testing,” she said. “Even if the test is accurate, we don’t know how to interpret it because it’s so new.”
The guidance also notes that patients with stable disease and previously stable lab markers on stable doses of their medication may be able to extend the interval for medication toxicity lab testing a few months if there is concern about exposure to COVID-19 to get the blood work.
“If you’re just starting a medicine or there’s someone who’s had abnormalities with the medicine in the past or you’re making medication adjustments, you wouldn’t do it in those scenarios, but if there’s someone who’s been on the drug for a long time and are nervous to get [blood] drawn, it’s probably okay to delay it,” Dr. Wahezi said. Lab work for disease activity measures, on the other hand, remain particularly important, especially since telemedicine visits may require clinicians to rely on lab results more than previously.