The COVID-19 vaccine rollout promises to curb new cases of the disease and eventually help return society to some semblance of normalcy.
But for people with rheumatoid-related conditions, including musculoskeletal, inflammatory, and autoimmune diseases, the vaccine has extra meaning, as their conditions make them more susceptible to the complications of COVID-19.
Earlier this month, the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) released its Vaccine Clinical Guidance Summary to provide a resource for those with rheumatoid conditions.
Dr. Jeffrey Curtis, chair of the ACR COVID-19 Vaccine Clinical Guidance Task Force, said in a release that, given the increased risk of COVID-19 to this population, the benefits of getting vaccinated outweigh any small risks.
Curtis also noted that the guidance will change as more data becomes available.
“This is very much a ‘living document’ and the task force already has plans to evaluate additional data in the coming weeks,” he said.
Healthline spoke to three experts who agreed that it’s a good idea for people with rheumatoid conditions to get vaccinated.
How COVID-19 affects rheumatoid conditions
Dr. Chris Chapman, president and chief medical officer for MyMD Pharmaceuticals, told Healthline that rheumatic diseases affect a person’s muscles, bones, ligaments, joints, and tendons.
With rheumatic disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, the immune system attacks healthy tissue within the body.
“Based on the limited research available, patients within this population are at a higher risk for severe COVID symptoms that can result in hospitalization,” Chapman explained. “This is because rheumatic diseases impact the immune system, compromising the body’s ability to fight other types of infections.”
For those who are skeptical of the vaccine, it’s a good idea to talk with a doctor.
Chapman points out that it’s important to ask whether current medications might interact with the vaccine, what side effects may occur, whether current medications might affect the neutralizing antibodies from the vaccine, and what the recommended time frame is for the booster.
The guidance provided by the ACR is ever-evolving and provides a resource for people and practitioners to navigate the data regarding vaccination.
Additionally, an ACR podcast addresses questions and concerns.
Dr. Eliza Chakravarty, a rheumatologist and immunologist at Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, told Healthline that the guidance is sound.
“Remember, none of the vaccines are live vaccines, so there is absolutely no risk of getting COVID-19 from the vaccine,” said Chakravarty. “The guidance task force recommended that everyone with rheumatic diseases should receive the vaccine as soon as they are eligible per state guidelines, and with very few exceptions, they can go ahead and get vaccinated without altering their regular medication dosing.”
Chakravarty points out that some medications may be held for a week after vaccination in order to maximize the immune response to the vaccine.
“These are only suggestions, as we all believe that vaccine responses may be a bit diminished from what we expect in healthy people. But all vaccinated people will develop at least some immunity to the virus, where currently no one has any immunity without having previous infection or vaccination,” she said.
It’s important to note that there is no risk to not holding medications for a week after vaccination, she added. This guidance is only in place because not holding them, theoretically, may make the vaccine’s efficacy slightly lower.
Getting the shot
Dr. Ahmed Elghawy, a rheumatologist and sports medicine physician in Cleveland, Ohio, told Healthline that the ACR’s guidelines make it clear that those with rheumatoid conditions should be prioritized before the general public, based on their increased risk of developing severe symptoms.
“So far, we have not found any risk beyond possible allergic reactions to certain components of the vaccine, but this is no different than the typical reaction of other vaccinations,” he explained. “Long story short, get vaccinated and talk with your doctor about whether you need to hold your medication and for how long.”
For those who are skeptical of the vaccine — whether they have rheumatoid conditions or not — experts say it’s important to understand that the science of what makes an effective vaccine is well understood.
“Some people may be worried about how quickly this vaccine was created and rolled out, but I implore skeptics to read the literature if they are medically savvy, or to speak with their doctor to translate any medical jargon that they may not understand,” said Elghawy.
“I will say that after reviewing the literature, the data is pretty impressive. We have to remember that although it usually takes years for vaccines to be created, we are currently facing a pandemic that we have never faced before in the era of modern medicine,” he added.
“With all hands on deck, and with the entire medical world coming together to tackle this problem, it’s a little easier to understand how this vaccine was ready for distribution faster than other vaccines.”
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