Arthritis Research Canada Responding to COVID-19
In light of the recent developments with the COVID-19 outbreak and the changing recommendations from the governments of BC and Canada, Arthritis Research Canada is carefully monitoring the information and implementing a number of protocols to ensure our volunteers, research participants, students, and staff are informed and protected according to the latest reports. We are encouraging everyone to follow the advice being provided so that we may help prevent the spread of the virus in our communities and country. While we are concerned for all people, we are particularly so for those with autoimmune diseases and/or those who are immunosuppressed. We are working to provide up-to-date answers to your questions and will be updating this page regularly.
COVID-19 Vaccine Information
News about vaccines for COVID-19 brings welcomed hope that an end to the pandemic is in sight. But this announcement also raises many questions. We will answer some of them here, based on information available at this time. We will continue to update this section as new information becomes available.
Is the vaccine approved in Canada?
Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for SARS-CoV2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) on December 9th and the Moderna vaccine on December 23rd.
Is there more than one vaccine?
Yes, multiple vaccines are currently in various stages of testing. Many companies have been working on developing a vaccine, using different technologies. This is good news, as it increases the chances of having a number of effective and safe options. As well, it will make it easier to produce enough vaccines for everyone who wants to be vaccinated, than if we were relying on only one producer.
How do the vaccines work?
All vaccines work by presenting to your immune system proteins (called antigens) that your body recognizes as foreign. This trains your immune system to recognize the SARS-CoV2 virus and mount an immune response (i.e. develop antibodies) that will protect you if you are exposed to the virus at a later date. For SARS-CoV2 it is the spike protein on the virus (what gives the virus its crown appearance). The main differences between the vaccines is what method is used to make the protein and present it to the immune system in a way that allows the body to make antibodies against it.
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are messenger RNA vaccines, which contain the genetic coding for the spike protein, stored in a lipid nanoparticle. This is read by your cells’ own protein-making machinery to produce antigens, which then trigger an immune response. There is no risk of getting the disease, because the vaccines don’t include virus particles. There is also no risk of genetic modification of your own DNA because the messenger RNA works downstream from the DNA and does not interact with your genes. The drawback is that the vaccines need to be stored at very cold temperatures. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine needs to be kept at extremely cold temperatures (-80 to -60 ◦C), the Moderna vaccine at regular freezer temperatures (-20 ◦C).
The Oxford/Astra-Zeneca vaccine is a viral vector vaccine, which contains a harmless version of a virus (the vector) to deliver the genetic coding for the spike protein, and instruct the cells to produce large amounts of antigen. There is no risk of getting COVID-19 because the virus used is not SARS-CoV2 but a harmless one. The vaccine can be stored at fridge temperature.
Is the vaccine safe for people taking medications that suppress the immune system?
People who take medications that suppress the immune system are told that they should not take any “live vaccines”. These are vaccines that contain the actual virus that causes the disease but in an attenuated form, i.e. a weakened version of the virus that can replicate but doesn’t cause the disease. Examples are yellow fever and measles vaccines. In people with weakened immune system, there is a small risk that the attenuated virus could cause the disease. This is different from “inactive vaccines” which contain a virus whose genetic material has been destroyed so that it cannot infect cells and replicate (e.g. flu vaccines). Although a few live attenuated COVID-19 vaccines are being tested in trials (e.g. the BCG vaccine), none of the vaccines which are currently approved for use, or in the process of obtaining approval, are live vaccines. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that the currently available vaccines would be unsafe for immunocompromised people.
However, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which have been approved by Health Canada, have not been tested in people with compromised immune systems (or in people under the age of 16, or pregnant women), as they were excluded from the original trials. Based on the absence of safety or efficacy data in these groups of people, the Province of BC is not currently planning to administer the vaccine to people who are immunocompromised.
Other vaccines that are currently under review may be available for people who are immunocompromised, or additional studies may be conducted on populations not included in the original trials. Studies are currently under way in children over the age of 12.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization, the scientific body advising Health Canada on vaccinations, recommends that risks and benefits be individually assessed by patients and their treating physician, on a case by case basis, to take into consideration the risk of each patient for SARS-CoV2 exposure and other factors or conditions that may influence a person’s risk of severe COVID-19 disease. The British Society of Rheumatology is currently recommending that immunosuppressed patients get the COVID-19 vaccine. The Canadian Rheumatology Association and the American College of Rheumatology will be releasing further guidance shortly.
How effective are the vaccines?
In large trials, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were found to be highly effective, preventing 95% of infections, across all ages, gender, races and ethnicities represented in the trials.
The Oxford/Astra-Zeneca vaccine was only tested in people of age < 55 and primarily in white people. It was found to have an effectiveness of 62% to 90%, depending on the groups tested and the dose regimen used.
The vaccines require two doses. The Pfizer-BioNTech doses are administered three weeks apart, the Moderna doses, four weeks apart. Full immunity is reached one week after the second dose, but even the first dose offers some protection.
It is not known how long the immunity will last after vaccination, but studies will measure the levels of immune protection over time as people get vaccinated, and booster doses will be recommended accordingly.
What are side-effects of the vaccine?
The main side-effects are pain at the injection site and flu-like symptoms. Fatigue, headaches and joint pains have been reported.
Due to recent reports of two cases of severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis-like) during the vaccination campaign in Britain, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine should not be used in people with a history of severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis), until the reports have been investigated further.
The Health Canada approval requires companies to continue monitoring for side-effects as vaccination is rolled out in the community, and to report on safety results from the continuation of the clinical trials for longer periods of time.
When can people expect to get the vaccine?
Vaccination started across Canada with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine the week of December 14. Distribution is complicated by the need for superfreezers to keep the vaccines at extremely cold temperatures. With the approval of the Moderna vaccine on December 23rd, more widespread vaccination will begin, including to remote and Indigenous communities, lacking capacity for deep freezer transportation and storage.
Canada has secured enough doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to vaccinate 3 million people by the end of March 2021, with 10 million to come at later dates, and options for 56 million more; as well as doses of the Oxford/Astra Zeneca to vaccinate 1 million people by end of March 2021. Canada has ordered 20 million doses of the Moderna vaccines, with an option to buy another 16 million, and 168,000 doses are expected to be received by the end of December. Vaccines have also been ordered from four other companies.
In BC, the Ministry of Health aims to vaccinate 400,000 people (10% of the population) by March 2021, and all people who want the vaccine by September 2021. A vaccination rate of 60-70% is expected by September 2021, which will reduce the rate of transmission in the community enough to provide good protection to people who cannot receive the vaccine (i.e. reach community immunity).
The initial doses of the vaccines will be distributed to long-term care homes for residents and staff, front-line health care workers in direct contact with COVID-19 patients, initially in the Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health regions, followed by other health regions once the Moderna vaccine is available. Next in line will be seniors over the age of 80, people with underlying health conditions, people who are under-housed, and people living in remote and isolated Indigenous communities. By April, front-line workers including teachers, grocery store workers, firefighters and people working in food processing plants will be prioritized. As more vaccines become available, vaccines will be distributed according to age categories, in descending order.
Where can I find information about my province/territory's vaccine roll-out plan?
What is the Canadian Rheumatology Association's view on COVID-19 Vaccines for people with arthritis?
The Canadian Rheumatology Association (CRA) is closely monitoring the COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna) in Canada. Click here to view the CRA’s position statement, which includes recommendations on the use of these vaccines for patients under the care of a rheumatologist.
COVID-19 Research Videos
Dr. Diane Lacaille - COVID-19 Global Rheumatology Alliance
Dr. Diane Lacaille is the Canadian lead on a worldwide alliance to collect information on rheumatology patients with COVID-19. This study can provide important insights on how the COVID-19 infection impacts our patients, and how arthritis medications may add to the risk of infection.
Dr. Mary De Vera - UNIFIED COVID-19 Study
The UNIFIED Study addresses the impact of COVID-19 on medication use and mental health for people with arthritis. This study seeks to better understand the experiences of individuals with rheumatic diseases and immunosuppressive conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Catherine Backman - Arthritis Research Adapted to Understand Impact of COVID-19
Dr. Catherine Backman and her team’s study to explore the health benefits of everyday activities for people with inflammatory arthritis has been adapted in response to COVID-19. A newly added component will assess the effects of self-isolation and staying at home. By better understanding how arthritis and social isolation affect the daily activities that support the health and well-being of people with and without inflammatory arthritis, this research will help improve arthritis self-management studies, rehabilitation programs and public heath recommendations.
Jenny Leese, MA, PhD Candidate - Studying the Impact of COVID-19 on Physical Activity & Self-Care
Jenny Leese, Arthritis Research Canada trainee and member of the research team led by Senior Research Scientist, Dr. Linda Li – shares an update about two current rheumatoid arthritis studies: OPAM-IA and OPERAS, and how they have been adapted in response to COVID-19.
Both studies will examine how are COVID-19 and B.C’s pandemic response (e.g. social distance and stay-at-home orders) affecting physical activity and self-care management for people with rheumatoid arthritis. Additionally, the team will explore mental and physical health, diet, finances, and access to essential medications. By better understanding the impacts of COVID-19, our research can help improve self-care strategies and rehabilitation services for arthritis management.
Dr. Linda Li - How Arthritis Research on Active Self-Management is Adapting to COVID-19
Dr. Linda Li’s research on active self-management of arthritis has been adapted to address the impact of COVID-19. The OPERAS study tracks the physical health and self-management of people with RA and will be monitoring changes in patients’ health and physical activity during and after COVID-19. This new information will help researchers better understand and improve care for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Learn more about the OPERAS study:
Dr. Antonio Aviña-Zubieta - Research on COVID-19 and Immunosuppressive Medications
Dr. Antonio Aviña-Zubieta, Senior Research Scientist at Arthritis Research Canada will be conducting research to look at whether drugs used to treat arthritis (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriatic arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis) increase the risk of contracting COVID-19, and if these drugs increase or decrease the risk of a severe COVID-19.
Funding for this project is provided by Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.
Employment and COVID-19: What Do People with Arthritis and Autoimmune Diseases Need to Know?
Should I return to work on site? What are my rights and obligations if asked to do so by my employer?
• The government and public health officials are encouraging workers to continue working from home if possible. Therefore, if you are able to do your job well from home, you should continue to do so. This is the safest option for everyone.
• If your employer asks you to return to work on site, and it is safe to do so, you are obliged to return.
• However, you have a right to inquire about your workplace’s COVID19 Safety Plan, which is mandated by the Province of BC and WorkSafe BC. Your workplace is required to make this plan available to all workers (posted on site, or on the web). https://www.worksafebc.com/en/about-us/covid-19-updates/covid-19-returning-safe-operation
• You should review the plan and, keeping your workflow in mind, be satisfied that all the required measures recommended by WorkSafe BC have been put in place to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission. If you feel they are not, you have the right to request that the recommended measures be put in place, or that the workflow be changed (if possible). There should be a system in place for you to express your concerns to your employer.
• If you are on medications that suppress your immune system and your job involves direct contact with other people in such a way that the risk of COVID19 transmission cannot be fully mitigated, and you can perform the essential duties of your job from home, you can request a job accommodation to work from home. If you cannot do the essential duties of your job from home, you should discuss with your rheumatologist the extent to which your medications increase your risk and the degree of risk of transmission based on your job duties, and if necessary, explore options for not returning to work (e.g. medical leave, leave of absence).
What should I look for when reviewing my workplace’s COVID-19 safety plan?
• Because every work situation differs, the WorkSafe BC COVID19 guidelines outline principles rather than specific measures.
• The principles to keep in mind are that risk is increased: 1) when people work in close physical proximity, and the longer the contact the higher the risk; as well as 2) when people touch the same surfaces, and the shorter the time in-between contacts the higher the risk.
• Has your workplace adequately examined the workflow of your job to identify risk of transmission? Have they involved frontline workers, as well as Health and Safety committees, and supervisors in evaluating risks?
• If your job tasks or work flow process involves working in close proximity to clients, are measures in pace to either increase the distance to > 6 feet, or install a physical barrier (e.g. plexiglass)? If not possible, will you be provided with personal protective equipment?
• If your job tasks or work flow process involves working in close proximity to other colleagues, are measures in place to increase the distance between colleagues ( > 6 feet), to install physical barriers (e.g. separators between desks), or to reduce occupancy at the same time (e.g. rotating tasks, staggering work shifts).
• Has your workplace identified surfaces that are touched by multiple people, or tools, machinery or equipment that are shared while working, and put in place protocols for reducing contamination (e.g. cleaning in between use, providing hand sanitizer)?
• Has your workplace identified places where people gather (e.g. lunch rooms, meeting rooms, elevators) and posted occupancy limits that permit physical distancing?
• Is your workplace providing easy access to hand sanitizer or hand washing stations, especially for use before and after use of common spaces, or commonly touched surfaces (e.g. elevators, kitchen, and photocopiers)? Are they regularly cleaning / disinfecting common areas?
• Does your workplace have strict policies mandating that workers stay home if they have any symptoms of cold, flu or COVID19, and has that policy been communicated to all workers?
• If your work involves a service to the public, are procedures in place to screen for COVID19 symptoms, and signs posted to that effect.
What can I do to reduce my risk of infection at the workplace?
• Work from home if possible. If unable to do all work from home, reschedule some tasks to do some from home and some from the office and choose a time when fewer workers are present.
• Ensures the proper safety measures are in place to mitigate COVID19 risk, as described above.
• Practice physical distancing from other co-workers and clients (more than 6 feet away); and/or limit the amount of time you are in close contact with others.
• Think of where people congregate at work (e.g. lunch rooms, meetings rooms, and photocopier) and avoid common areas or use them when less crowded.
• Think of surfaces touched by others and use hand sanitizer before and after touching them (e.g. door knobs, light switches, elevator buttons, coffee maker, fridge door, handles, phones, equipment, shared tools).
• Consider bringing your own tools, cutlery, and kitchen items.
• Practice frequent handwashing, especially before eating.
• Avoid touching your face, eyes, nose and mouth.
• Avoid using public transit if you can. If you must use transit, request a job accommodation to adjust your work hours so you travel during less crowded times. Avoid touching common surfaces in transit. Use hand sanitizer when you do.
Do you have recommendations for working from home?
• As people are now working from home for extended periods of time, it is important to pay attention to how you work at home.
• Ensure your workspace at home as a proper ergonomic set up that allows you to work with a good posture, with your body and spine well aligned, and your joints in the resting/neutral position and well supported.
• Make sure your computer, chair, and table set up allow you to have your arms at your side without shrugging your shoulders, your elbows at 90 degrees, and your wrist straight in the neutral position. Your chair should allow your knees and hips to be at the same height and your feet to touch the ground (or use a foot rest).
• Take breaks regularly to avoid prolonged sitting. Use the 20/20/20 rule: every 20 minutes, take a 20 seconds break to stretch and look 20 feet away from your screen.
• Keep good work routines, with regular start time and end of workday. This will help maintain good work-life balance.
• If possible, maintain boundaries between work and home life. Working from home can allow work to encroach on personal time, and vice-versa. Childcare during COVID-19 can make this difficult.
• Avoid social isolation. Work is a common source of social interactions. Make sure you remain connected with others, at work and outside of work.
• Take care of your emotional well-being.
Frequently Asked Questions [May 14, 2020]
Are there concerns about taking anti-inflammatory medications?
• In light of observations that patients taking ibuprofen may have more severe respiratory illness when affected by COVID-19, the WHO had recommended to avoid using ibuprofen to treat symptoms of COVID-19 and to use acetaminophen instead to treat fever or headaches. Since then, the WHO has retracted their statement due to lack of good quality evidence. Health Canada has followed WHO’s advice. Since the issue is not clear, we recommend avoiding the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, also called NSAIDs, if not necessary to control pain. We recommend trying acetaminophen on a regular schedule up to the maximum recommended dose of 3 grams per day to control arthritis pain, and consider using NSAIDs only if there are no other options for pain control.
• Examples of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications include ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), diclofenac (Voltaren), indomethacin (Indocid), celecoxib (Celebrex), meloxicam (Mobicox) and Naprosyn. If you are unsure if your medication is an NSAID, contact your pharmacist.
• Please click the links below for recommendations from:
What is known about the rate and severity of infection in patients with rheumatologic disease, especially those patients taking prednisone, DMARDs (Disease Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs) such as hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), sulfasalazine, methotrexate and leflunomide (Arava), biologics, or immunosuppressive agents?
Currently, there is no specific data on SARS-CoV-2 in patients with rheumatologic disease or immunosuppression. However, the medications listed do suppress the immune system and therefore increase the risk of having a more severe infection if patients come in contact with the virus. Therefore, people on these medications are considered at high risk and should take extra precautions to avoid contact and should seek medical attention if they have any symptoms, following the local directives for testing and accessing health care if symptoms.
Should patients who are taking prednisone, DMARDs (Disease Modifying AntiRheumatic Drugs) such as hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), sulfasalazine, methotrexate and leflunomide (Arava), biologics, or other drugs for their rheumatic diseases stop them?
• It is not recommended for people to stop their DMARD medications if they have no symptoms of COVID-19 as uncontrolled inflammation due to the arthritis can be harmful for the body’s response to the virus.
• Stopping prednisone abruptly is also dangerous to one’s health, as the body’s own production of cortisol is suppressed.
• It is unclear if people should interrupt therapy during episodes of infection (i.e. if symptomatic or positive for COVID-19), as some of the severe manifestations of COVID-19 are due to the body’s immune response to the virus and, therefore, in theory some medications used to treat auto-immune diseases might be helpful. However, good evidence is still lacking. Patients should talk to their rheumatologist or prescribing doctor prior to discontinuing any of their medications. This is a complex decision based on the specific medication used, assessment of risk factors, other chronic diseases, and of the specific situation.
• There is some suggestion that hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), chloroquine (not available in North America), and anti-IL-6 drugs tocilizumab (Actemra) and sarilumab (Kevzara) may benefit those hospitalized with severe COVID-19 infection. This is not proven.
Are any pharmacologic measures (prophylactic or therapeutic) recommended?
There are currently no prophylactic or therapeutic measures beyond supportive care recommended for this virus. Testing of potential therapies is underway in many countries, and the work to develop a vaccine is also moving forward. However, it is unclear when these will be available.
What can patients do to protect themselves against contracting this disease?
• Patients who are on DMARDs, prednisone, or biologics should avoid contact with people who are sick with COVID-19 or who are at high risk (e.g. returning from travel) and should limit the number of visitors to their homes.
• The BCCDC and other sources have underscored the importance of hand hygiene, with frequent and effective hand washing (for 20 seconds) with soap and water.
• One can use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
• As important as hand washing is, avoiding to touch one’s face, mouth and eyes (i.e. all mucous membranes) and thoroughly washing hands before, if necessary to do so.
• Social distancing (i.e. staying at least 2 metres away from others), working from home, and avoiding public spaces or public transit, etc., are all recommended measures for reducing the risk of contact with cases in the community. The main mode of transmission is through droplets from an infected person that are spread through coughing and sneezing.
• Recommendations about wearing masks have changed since the onset of the pandemic and vary according to region. Although BC is not mandating it, Health Canada and the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommend that people wear masks when outside of the house, especially in more crowded environments, such as in public transit or when doing errands. For this purpose, disposable surgical masks, or home made masks that fit snugly from the bridge of the nose to under the chin, suffice. This is primarily to prevent the spread of the virus from people who have no symptoms and may not be aware they are carrying the virus. However, it also protects the person wearing the mask to some extent. If in contact with a person with known COVID19, a special kind of mask, called an N95 mask, is necessary for better protection.
• It is recommended to frequently wash and commonly touched surfaces such as: tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, desks, toilets, faucets, sinks, steering wheels, keys with household cleaners. Washing with household cleaners will remove the virus from surfaces. Using disinfectants after washing, gives the additional protection of killing viruses. Alcohol based products (> 70%), diluted bleach (1:9 dilution with water – never mix bleach with other cleaning products) and other EPA-registered household disinfectants can be used. Coronaviruses are susceptible to soap and detergents. Further information is available on the BCCDC website.
• Washing clothing or linen items with the highest heat appropriate for the item and using the dryer is also an effective means of cleaning cloth items. The virus is susceptible to heat.
• Do not share food, drinks, utensils, and do not eat from buffets, etc.
• Do not shake hands.
• When coughing or sneezing, cough or sneeze into a tissue or the bend of your arm, not your hand. Dispose of any tissues you have used as soon as possible in a lined waste basket and wash your hands afterwards.
What else can patients and their providers do?
• Patients should make sure they have received all appropriate vaccinations, including seasonal influenza, pneumonia, pertussis, and shingles vaccines. These will not prevent COVID-19, but will protect against those diseases, which if you had them (e.g. influenza) would likely make you more susceptible to more severe COVID-19 infection and vice versa.
• In addition, patients should keep ample stocks (e.g. one-month supply) of necessary medications on hand in case they are prevented from refilling prescriptions in a timely manner.
Research Participation Opportunities
COVID-19 Global Rheumatology Alliance
Arthritis Research Canada/Arthrite-recherche Canada is collaborating with the COVID-19 Global Rheumatology Alliance on an international initiative collecting information on rheumatology patients with COVID-19 from around the world. By gathering data specific to rheumatology patients, the Alliance will gain important insights on how COVID-19 impacts rheumatology patients, and more specifically, how autoimmune diseases and immunosuppressive medications influence the risk of infection and the outcomes of COVID-19.
A separate initiative by the COVID-19 Global Rheumatology Alliance, is collecting information from adults (and parents of children) with rheumatic diseases to gain a better understanding of how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting people living with rheumatic diseases. If you would like to participate, please visit https://rheum-covid.org/patient-survey/
UNIFIED COVID-19 Study
This study seeks to better understand the experiences of individuals with rheumatic diseases and immunosuppressive conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Empowering active self-management of arthritis: Raising the bar with OPERAS (an On-demand Program to EmpoweR Active Self-management)
This project will investigate whether an online intervention app can improve a patient’s ability to manage his or her rheumatoid arthritis. The “On-demand Program to EmpoweR Active Self-management” (OPERAS) links to a Fitbit Flex and combines disease activity monitoring and physical activity counselling.
Tracking rheumatoid arthritis symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic
OPERAS (On-demand Program to EmpoweR Active Self-management) is an easy to use web/mobile app designed for people with RA to track their health. This app helps people to “see” how their symptoms and physical activity levels change over time, together with the treatment they use. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this information can be helpful for people with RA to plan all the things that they juggle in their self-care.
Arthritis Wellness Conversation on COVID-19
Arthritis Wellness Conversations - Navigating COVID-19 When You Have Arthritis
A first Arthritis Wellness Conversation hosted by Chronic Wellness Radio host, Sandra Sova. Members of our Patient Advisory Board share their personal stories and tips on coping with COVID-19. Joined by our Associate Scientific Director, Diane Lacaille to provide her expert insights.
Helpful Links & Articles
OP-ED – Staying happy while staying home: Lessons from occupational therapy