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Coronavirus and arthritis: What you should know

Since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a public health emergency, health officials have reminded us that older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions may be at higher risk for more severe complications from COVID-19.

Those cited as being the most vulnerable are the elderly, as well as people with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory illness, high blood pressure and cancer.

But what about the 54 million Americans with arthritis, the 1.5 million Americans suffering with some form of lupus or those with another autoimmune illness that compromise the body’s immune system?

We sat down with Dr. Long Huynh-Duc, a board-certified rheumatologist with Piedmont Arthritis Clinic in Greenville to find out more about coronavirus and arthritis.

What about those taking immune suppressing medications?

One concern among those being treated for autoimmune disease is that taking immune suppressing medications could make them more susceptible to contracting coronavirus or to more severe symptoms should they get the virus.

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It is not known whether taking immunosuppressant drugs further increases the risk of catching COVID-19, but it is not recommended that those with arthritis or lupus suspend treatment, Dr. Huynh-Duc said.

“A lot of our patients have an autoimmune, rheumatologic condition and they’re either on steroids, anti-inflammatories or biologics. There aren’t enough studies to support going off an arthritis or lupus treatment plan, but definitely stop treatment if you have an active infection such as cold, flu, sinus infection or viral infection.”

When treatments stop, flareups occur that make it harder to get the disease back under control. Dr. Huynh-Duc added.

Should I continue to get my treatment at an infusion center?

To help put patients more at ease with keeping their infusion appointments, Piedmont Arthritis Clinic is following CDC guidelines to minimize any exposure or spread of coronavirus, Dr. Huynh-Duc said.

Cleaning and sanitizing of workstations, waiting rooms, chairs and doorknobs is routine. Chairs in the waiting room and on-site infusion suite have been spaced six feet apart. And the time patients spend in the waiting room is kept to a minimum.

And while temperatures checks occur upon entrance to the building where Piedmont Arthritis Clinic is housed at 400 St. Francis Drive, arthritis patients may not spike a fever due to the medications they are on, Dr. Huynh-Duc said.

What if I take hydroxychloroquine for arthritis or lupus?

One medication that has become well known in recent weeks is hydroxychloroquine. Sold under the brand name, Plaquenil, the drug is used to treat lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and malaria.

Because of the interest in hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, it is suddenly in high demand. That has created a widespread shortage, leaving many people with arthritis unable to refill their prescription, Dr. Huynh-Duc said.

Hydroxychloroquine is being evaluated as a treatment for COVID-19, not as a prevention, Dr. Huynh-Duc warns.

“Don’t feel that because you are taking Plaquenil that it will cure or prevent COVID-19.”

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