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COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy still weighs heavy for some rheumatic disease patients



With 49% of the U.S. population fully vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, a new study highlights the degree of vaccine hesitancy among patients with rheumatic disease to get the vaccine.

Female teen approaches a check in nurse. Covid safe distancing poster on window. Halfpoint Images/Moment/Getty Images

The international study, published in May 2021 in Rheumatology, suggests that, of 1,258 patients surveyed worldwide, approximately 40% of patients said they would decline the vaccine.

“Sometimes it’s helpful to talk through their concerns,” said Jeffrey Curtis, MD, MPH, a University of Alabama at Birmingham rheumatologist who leads the American College of Rheumatology COVID-19 vaccine task force. Dr. Curtis recently reviewed the current literature on COVID-19 vaccination in patients with rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases (RMDs) at the annual meeting of the Group for Research and Assessment of Psoriasis and Psoriatic Arthritis.

COVID-19 vaccinations for patients with autoimmune inflammatory rheumatic disease (AIIRD) is not straightforward. The immune response can be blunted by existing treatments and disease flares can occur.

Dr. Jeffrey Curtis, University of Alabama at Birmingham Courtesy UAB Photo

Dr. Jeffrey Curtis

The latest version of COVID-19 vaccination guidance for patients with RMDs from the ACR addresses vaccine use and implementation strategies. The guidance was issued as conditional or provisional because of the lack of evidence. Its principals are largely based on accepted practice for other vaccines. The guidance is routinely updated as new evidence becomes available. In his presentation at GRAPPA, Dr. Curtis reviewed the latest version of the guidance, which he emphasized is a guidance only and not meant to replace clinical judgment or shared decision-making with patients.

“This is a platform for you to start from as you are thinking about and discussing with your patient what might be best for him or her,” he said.

Concerns about impact of disease activity, treatments on effectiveness

Dr. Curtis highlighted some controversial aspects of COVID-19 vaccines, including heterogeneity of rheumatic diseases and treatment. Patients with AIIRD, including psoriatic arthritis, spondyloarthritis, RA, and lupus, are at higher risk for hospitalized COVID-19 and worse outcomes, and as such, they are prioritized for vaccination by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, for AIIRD patients, the immune response to COVID-19 vaccination can be “blunted,” according to one study. This may be because of glucocorticoid use or high disease activity. Immunomodulatory therapies, such as methotrexate, rituximab, and abatacept, are known to diminish vaccine response in general. The evidence is less clear for tumor necrosis factor and Janus kinase inhibitors, but they are thought to have the same impact on vaccine effectiveness, Dr. Curtis said. But in these cases, if the effect of a COVID-19 vaccine drops from 90% to 70%, the benefits of vaccination still far outweighs the risk of contracting COVID-19.

“Although we don’t have strong data with clinical outcomes for autoimmune disease or inflammatory disease patients, I’ll run a hypothetical and say: ‘Look, if this vaccine starts 90%-95% effective, even if it’s only 70% effective in somebody with lupus or vasculitis or someone who is taking a higher dose of steroids, I’ll take 70% over nothing if you chose to be vaccinated,’ ” he said.

The benefit of vaccination also outweighs the potential risk of disease flare, he said. The risk is real, but to date, no studies have pointed to a significant risk of disease flare or worsening. However, there have been reported cases of myocardial infarction.


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