Four IBD Physicians Talk COVID: What You Need to Know

Since the words “quarantine”, “self-distancing”, and “COVID-19” became a regular part of our vocabulary three months ago, there have been many fears, and a lot of gray areas for everyone, especially chronic illness patients on immunosuppressive therapies. I had a chance to connect with well-respected and prominent physician voices in the IBD community to get to the bottom of what we need to be doing right now, and how to best handle the days and months ahead.

One of the most common questions—who is at most risk in the IBD population for getting COVID-19? You may be surprised at the findings and discourse.

“We have been reassured that with the exception of steroids, patients with IBD are not at increased risk for bad outcomes with COVID. The risks are similar to the rest of the population,” explained Dr. David Rubin, MD, Professor and Chief of GI, The University of Chicago Medicine. “Older age, co-morbid conditions like obesity, diabetes or other medical problems, and smoking cigarettes put patients at increased risk.” COVIDarticle

Every study and case series has demonstrated NO increased risk for infection, COVID, or bad outcomes with biological therapies. This includes the work of the international registry (COVIDIBD.org and now published in Gastroenterology), the mixed immune patients of all kinds reported from NYU in the New England Journal of Medicine, and other series from Italy and China.

“We have good data now that IBD patients, even those on immunosuppressive therapies are not at increased risk of COVID. However, getting sick with COVID might mean holding off IBD meds, which could potentially trigger a flare,” said Dr. Aline Charabaty, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Clinical Director of the GI Division, Director of the Center for IBD, John Hopkins School of Medicine at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington D.C.

Don’t let your guard down

Dr. Charabaty advises everyone to continue to exercise common sense and be cautious for the upcoming months, otherwise we are at a risk of a second wave of COVID-19.

“Follow responsible physical distancing: avoid unnecessary travel, work from home if possible, and minimize outings in crowded places. Continue to wear a mask, wash hands/use disinfectant, in other words continue to follow COVID-19 precautions when out, or if you have to go to work.  The risk of exposure depends on the incidence of COVID-19 in an area, but also feeling overconfident in an area of low incidence can lead to unnecessary exposure,” she added. coronavirus-4937226_1280

Dr. Peter Higgins, MD, PhD, M.Sc., Director of IBD program, University of Michigan, recommends patients on steroids continue to stay home and avoid outside contact, but for patients not on steroids, the outdoors with a mask, away from crowds, can be therapeutic.

“The hard part is knowing when there will be crowds of people, and avoiding dense gatherings,” Dr. Higgins said. “Having open space and good airflow seems to be protective. Being in close quarters, especially with folks who are breathing hard (exercise, singing) seems to increase risk.”

Small Gatherings with friends and family (less than 10 people)

Dr Charabaty recommends the following:

  • Before gathering with family, make sure no one has had recent symptoms or exposure to someone who has tested positive.
  • When indoors with family staying 6 feet apart isn’t always feasible, wash your hands frequently and wear a mask if sitting close.
  • The idea is to share fun family moments, but remain cautious and protect yourself and loved ones.

“I would limit the number for gathering based on how much space you are entertaining in. Certainly, the more people there are, the more limited the physical space per individual there is to share,” said Dr. Neilanjan Nandi, MD, FACP, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. “With that in mind, I would ask people to not invite more people than they can physically safely distance themselves from. If we’re too close, we spread the virus. If we have distance, then we decrease the odds.”

Luckily, the summer months are perfect for outdoor festivities and gatherings with friends and family. Being indoors in close quarters is taking a calculated risk. It’s hard to know if everyone at a gathering is uninfected without a lot more testing or strict quarantine from every visitor beforehand.

Outdoor patio seating, should you, or shouldn’t you?

The waters get a bit murky here. The consensus is to get takeout and find a picnic spot far from others or to eat at home.

Dr. Charabaty says she tells patients and her family to avoid or limit outdoor dining. She explains, “It’s difficult for people handling and serving food to follow hand washing and social distancing when service is busy. I see many restaurant workers wearing gloves, and touching many different services, which gives a false sense of security. It’s not the cooked food that is an issue, it’s more the handling of the plates, glasses, and silverware.” Outdoor dining

Be mindful of how far tables are spaced out and call ahead to see what measures the restaurant is taking before you go.

Health pundits have pointed out that bathrooms are a point of contact for any infection to be transmitted. This is something to keep in mind, especially for those of us with IBD, who may need to frequent the bathroom more than most. “Hand dryers may aerosolize, and toilet flushes can create microscopic fecal plumes,” says Dr. Nandi. “Notably, coronavirus is present in stool at magnitudes lower than respiratory droplets, so their impact on developing clinically relevant disease is unknown. It is restaurant goers who are coughing and sneezing and then using the bathroom that may cause more concern. If you need to use the bathroom while out, use paper towels and close the toilet lid when flushing.”

Navigating everything from medical appointments to hair cuts

“I understand people wanting to go to hair salon; if you need to , and no one in your house can cut or color your hair, call ahead to make an appointment to minimize wait and exposure, and pick a day and time that are not busy,” said Dr. Charabaty. “If your visit to the physician is routine, you can discuss with your physician how soon you need to be seen. If it’s a sick appointment or a follow-up that you already needed to delay, then again, wear your mask, remove it only when needed; and wash your hands often.”

Before You Go: Ask medical offices and salons what precautions they are taking:

  • Does the office call patients ahead of time to check if they have symptoms suspicious of COVID?
  • What measures are being taken in waiting rooms?
  • Is everyone required to wear a mask?
  • Ideally you want to see lots of free, no-questions-asked testing in your local community/county to monitor COVID rates
  • A low level of new cases (less than 3 per week) in your local county
  • Lots of serious precautions taken, including possibly outdoor haircuts (common during 1918 flu pandemic), fans to increase airflow, and glove, gown, mask, and face shields on stylist/dentist/eye doctor to protect them as well as you. Recent exposures in Missouri reinforce this.

The future of telehealth

“I expect telehealth will continue- our estimate is that about 30-40% of routine visits may be virtual which is great, but this needs some careful reflection,” explained Dr. Rubin. “We need some thoughts and plans for better home monitoring and some additional guardrails to know when in person visits are needed and when providers or patients should request them. We don’t want to make mistakes and let patients slip through the cracks of virtual visits without physical examinations and adequate disease and therapy monitoring.”

The return to work

Ways to minimize exposure in the workplace and the questions to ask:

  • What measures is your employer taking to ensure responsible physical distancing?
  • Are employees required to wear a mask?
  • If working outside the home, leave clothes and shoes in the garage or the basement. Strip down and scrub down right when you get home.
  • If spouse has symptoms or if they’ve traveled to a high-risk area, they should quarantine.
  • Ask your boss if you can continue to work from home or increase the frequency of doing so to limit your exposure. Provide a note from your GI to Human Resources that explains why you are immunocompromised.
  • Monitor yourself or your spouse closely for fever, symptoms (including both respiratory and GI symptoms) and if possible, pulse oximetry to measure blood oxygen levels (a decrease is worrisome).

Dr. Higgins explains there are “high and low” risks work environments. High risk involves a crowded open space office full of cubicles, working in an ER/ICU/healthcare, assembly line/meatpacking plant, air travel, frequent contact with large numbers of people (bus driver). Lower risk jobs involve outdoor work, low density office spaces with closed doors/good airflow, and solo car travel. photo-1531493731235-b5c309dca387

“When it comes to spouse related travel, I would have them again speak with their employer about the necessity and yield of the trip. Much of what we can do currently can be done via teleconferencing,” said Dr. Nandi. “While the personal touch is always preferred, today’s times do necessitate that we be conservative and protect ourselves and our families. If travel is necessary, the spouse testing upon return is a good idea. If not possible, then conservatively a self-quarantine would be recommended. Of course, this presents marked strain on the functionality of any family. this emphasizes the need for greater and better testing capability.”

Remain cautious, don’t get too comfortable

Even with states re-opening, it’s on us to remain cautious and minimize unnecessary exposure while being able to provide for our families. We all have cabin fever going on, but we are all responsible to prevent a second wave of COVID by avoiding being complaisant.

“While it is reassuring to know that in general our patients with IBD do as well as the general population (or possibly better), it is prudent to continue our caution until we get to an R0 of <1.0 (meaning one infected person infects less than one additional person) by ongoing efforts to flatten the curve and/or a vaccine,” says Dr. Rubin. coronavirus-line-art-5019475_1280

This too shall pass

“It is sad and frustrating that this pandemic has occurred in our society, but I view it as a unique opportunity to get better connected: first with one’s self ; second with our immediate family and friends and third, with our natural environment,” said Dr. Nandi. “In my opinion, our Western society’s luxuries can often prevent us from enjoying the simplest pleasures in life. Thus, I take this time as an opportunity to spend quality time with my family, read more books, try new recipes, and workout more regularly. Because, I know in time, this too shall pass – and the opportunity that it presents will disappear as well.”

 

My family calls me “Sergeant COVID”: Navigating life while being high-risk, as the world reopens

I’m preparing to feel like the bad guy in the months ahead. My family has already jokingly called me “Sergeant COVID”.  As an IBD mom who is immunocompromised, the decisions I make as the world starts to reopen may step on some toes. I’ve always been one to struggle with confrontation and take it upon myself to be a people-pleaser, which isn’t always a good thing. But this. This is different. I know there will be times I need to speak up and say no.

While out on a walk with my family in our neighborhood this week, we approached a house with two moms sitting side by side, a play date was going down.

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Daily walks and getting fresh air help to keep us sane!

Several kids ran around the yard. An SUV parked next to the two moms with their thermoses. I turned to my husband when I spotted them and said, “well there’s a playdate.” He laughed and said, “Are you not going to allow Reid and Sophia to see anyone for a year?”

Well, that’s a good question my friends. Who knows what these next few months will bring, and as someone who is immunocompromised from my biologic medication, that may need to be the reality if things don’t make a drastic turnaround for the better as far as number of cases and deaths.

I want to be together with my friends and family as much as the next person

I also understand the risk associated with getting together with people who have not taken social distancing and quarantine as strictly as my family has. I haven’t stayed in my house and neighborhood since March 12th and only ventured to the grocery store and for bloodwork once, to throw those efforts out the window. I haven’t cooked every meal for my family and refrained from ordering take out for nothing.

baking

Trying lots of new recipes has been a great distraction.

The moment I let my guard down before I feel comfortable, the moment I put myself or my family at risk.

As someone who’s worried about sickness from germs and flare-ups for years, I see this pandemic through a different lens than many. Anyone in the IBD community who is on immunosuppressive medication has a different perspective. I’m already anxious about having to justify my decisions to stay home as life slowly starts getting back to a new normal for everyone. But until I feel safe, we’ll be taking all the precautions.

I wonder just as much as the next person in the chronic illness community how to navigate these difficult conversations with well-meaning and otherwise “healthy” friends and family. When I hear about people getting together indoors, going for walks with people outside their nuclear family, having people over for BBQs, even being essential workers (which I know can’t be helped)—I know the date I’ll see those friends and family just gets pushed further away.

When things calm down, the first people my kids and I will see indoors, will be my parents, who have practiced strict social distancing and haven’t ventured out for anything but groceries. If they were out and about and seeing others, that wouldn’t be the case.

We all need to do what we feel comfortable with and worry less about hurting someone’s feelings or getting a little backlash for our decisions. Luckily, my husband Bobby has been extremely understanding and supportive and backs me up on how I feel. IMG-1529

The best thing we can do is over-communicate. Talk openly about life as someone who is immunocompromised and what recommendations and parameters around social distancing your care team has shared with you. By talking about what your doctor has told you, it validates your worries and fears.

It’s ok to feel disappointed and frustrated. Not everyone has been or will take social distancing and quarantining as seriously as you do. Focus on what you can control—and that is your actions and that of your families. You are doing all that you can to stay safe, and that’s what matters. I’ve had moments where I was physically shaking and so overwhelmed by emotions throughout these past few weeks—because of the actions of others. You see it on social media—the families getting together with several people for Easter, and birthdays, and Mother’s Day. People taking trips on airplanes. Social distancing block parties where people are all standing super close to one another. It’s truly mind-boggling and hard not be judgmental from my vantage point. If you need to cut down on social media or cut ties temporarily with those who you believe are acting irresponsibility, do what you need to do for your mental health and well-being.

We had originally planned to drop off my mother-in-law’s Mother’s Day gifts on the front porch and stay in our car, but my in-laws set up patio furniture on opposite sides of their large patio and we were able to hang out outside 20+ feet apart to exchange presents. It was nice to finally see one another from afar vs. through a window.

Constantly keep your finger on the pulse of research. There are so many physicians in the IBD community truthfully working around the clock to bring patients like us the latest and newest information about COVID-19 as it relates to Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Educate yourself on factual, research-based information. Follow top GI doctors on Twitter. Stay in touch with your care team and don’t hesitate to ask questions. Tune in for Facebook Lives and Twitter Chats from IBD Social Circle, IBD Moms, and many other great groups.

Lean on the patient community. Prior to the pandemic, life with a chronic illness already made us feel a bit like outsiders. IMG-1409Now more than ever, we’re being labeled as the “sickly”, the “disposable”, the “weak”, the list goes on. COVID-19 is not JUST about the elderly and immunocompromised, this is about everyone. As patients we have a unique perspective and understanding about the struggles we face daily and what it’s like to go through this challenging time. Connect with fellow patients online who get your reality, your emotion, and the whirlwind of going up against this invisible bogeyman. To refrain from social media, you can download awesome free apps like Gali Health and IBD Healthline, with helpful articles, community conversations, and chats by patients, for patients.

Your FOMO is nothing new. Chances are throughout your patient journey you’ve had to miss out on plans or cancel last minute. Will it be hard when the whole family or your group of friends are getting together, and you tell them you won’t be joining for the big “post-quarantine” reunion? YES. Of course. At the same time, you’ll probably feel comforted not having to worry if so and so is asymptomatic and waiting on pins and needles for two weeks to see if you’re in the clear.

I look so forward to the day when my family and I can reunite with those we love and miss dearly. I just ask that people have understanding, patience, and empathy for those like myself, who will be very fearful to return to life as we used to know it…if that will ever be. Maybe put on the kid gloves and imagine walking in our shoes before you say something that you can never take back.

IBD mom offers up 5 tips for productively working from home

Twenty years ago, Katy Love, was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. She was a sophomore in college. She could barely make it out of bed some days, due to the enormous amount of pain and overwhelming fatigue. After her diagnosis and subsequent surgeries, she wondered if she’d ever be able to have a “real job” – like many of us in the chronic illness community, she worried about how she would be able to work and manage her illness. Katy didn’t allow her diagnosis to prevent her from following her personal or professional dreams. Now as an IBD mom, running her own PR business from home, in the middle of a pandemic, she has some advice to share about being successful in the face of adversity. Boulder_Headshots_043

After graduating from college, I took a job at an interactive advertising agency. My dream job. Then, reality set in. I needed to ask for accommodations for my Crohn’s disease– I had to ask for a flexible schedule – one where I could work from home when needed.

I was elated when the agency agreed. Since then, I’ve been blessed to work with several teams (for other companies) that understood my illness and trusted me to work remotely when needed. As someone who has worked from home quite often during my career, due to a chronic illness, I’ve learned a few helpful best practices that have helped save me time… and my sanity.

Create a realistic routine and office hours. If you know you can’t start working until 9 a.m., due to family obligations, don’t start your work time until 9 a.m. Then, plan accordingly for your end time each day. Be sure to share your office hours with your family and colleagues. It’s important for everyone to know when you’re working. Also be patient with your new schedule. As with all new things, it will take some time to become a true routine. This is all new territory – working from home is a normal occurrence for me, however, having all my children and my spouse at home, while trying to work from home, is a new challenge.

Get Dressed. Every single day. I know this may sound silly, as you haven’t left the house in weeks. But I find this extremely important. It sets the tone for the day. When you look the part, you’re much more likely to feel the part. Plus, with all the Zoom calls, you want to look like you aren’t wearing yesterday’s PJs for the weekly team meeting.

Establish a defined workspace. You need an area where you know – this is my desk, my work zone. Your family members know that when you are there, you are working. Working from bed sounds delightful…I love my bed. However, it’s easy to be distracted if you’re not in a specific workspace. IMG_0846Also, surround your workspace with all that you may need during the day. Computer, chargers, phone, etc. I like to also put candles or fresh flowers near my workspace – they smell great and elevate my mood. With spring finally here, go outside and pick a few flowers and put them in a mason jar. Anything that makes you smile and motivates you.

Communication is KEY. I learned this early on in my career. Just because you’re not in physical sight of your team, and your employer, you want them to know you’re ON and working. The worst thing you can do is go dark. If they don’t see you, hear from you, it’s easy to assume you aren’t taking working from home seriously. So, over-communicate with your team during this time.

Take breaks throughout the day. When you’re setting up your new routine/office hours, schedule breaks into the day. Personally, I like to work out in the mornings. So, finding 30 minutes to hop on my bike sets my day up for success. In the afternoon, take a walk outside, or bake with your kids. Katy_Vince_Family_138It’s extremely important to incorporate self-care into your routine right now. There’s so much uncertainty and doom/gloom in the news. Make sure you are taking time to appreciate yourself, your team, and your family, while keeping your health as a top a priority.

 

My five year old has Crohn’s and was tested for COVID-19: A Mother’s story

UPDATE: Since this story was shared on March 30th, Jadyn’s COVID-19 test came back. After two weeks of waiting, the test came back positive.

Imagine your 14-month-old baby being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. That was the reality for Anna and Jon Richt of Georgia. Fast forward a few years and their daughter, Jadyn, is now five years old and thriving with IBD. This past week though, the Richt family had quite a scare. E06A1215Jadyn woke up with a fever and a slight cough. Given the craziness of the times we live in right now, they immediately called the COVID-19 hotline. Once the person on the other line heard about Jadyn’s health history and the fact she is immunocompromised, they agreed, Jadyn needed to be seen. In urgent care, Jadyn was tested for the flu, strep throat, and COVID-19. The Richt’s were told they would have a test result in five days, it’s been more than a week now, and still no result.

Prior to all the discussion on social distancing and sheltering in place, Anna and Joe had traveled domestically. Family members who had been staying in their home had recently traveled internationally. Anna says, “The strep test came back positive, which gave us a sense of relief. But it didn’t cancel the possibility of COVID-19. We have been watching her closely, ready to sound the alarm at any sign of health deterioration. Thankfully, she is feeling much better and I believe she is bouncing back to her normal self.”

What’s it like to raise a daughter with IBD from such a young age? Jadyn has a G-tube, and Anna is passionate about spreading awareness about feeding tubes to educate others. E06A1193I’ll allow Anna to take you back to the beginning, so you can have a better grasp of their ongoing journey and how it’s brought them to where they are today.

Seeing blood when my baby was six months old

I started seeing blood in Jadyn’s stool when she was around six weeks old and immediately called her pediatrician. He chalked it up to a couple of things, mostly related to breastfeeding issues and didn’t seem too concerned. When she was eight months old, my husband’s job moved us far away from family and her symptoms worsened. Her new pediatrician was concerned about her weight loss and sent us to the hospital for further testing.

A colonoscopy showed lesions all throughout her GI tract. Crohn’s disease was mentioned but the gastroenterologist was hesitant to diagnose it because of Jadyn’s young age. I did exactly what they say not to do and Googled Crohn’s Disease. The symptoms were spot on: “Bloody stools, persistent diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss.” I’m not sure I’ve ever told anyone this, but deep down, I knew.

Dealing with the diagnosis

The diagnosis eventually came when Jadyn was 14 months old. fullsizeoutput_38f9The first couple years were nothing short of a dog fight. I remember sitting in my sister’s living room after an appointment when all of the sudden the doctor’s number popped up on my phone. She was calling to say that Jadyn’s lab results didn’t look good and we needed to head to the hospital right away.

My sister and I sat there in disbelief and cried. I remember her saying through her tears, “I feel like you are under attack.” We were. But we fought back. There have been countless doctors’ appointments, feeding tubes, eating therapies, procedures, you name it. She has been a trooper through it all and I am so happy to report that her current medication is working. Thankfully, she is a normal 5-year-old for the most part, which I don’t take for granted.

What has the journey been like for me as her mother?

It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever faced in my life. At the beginning I assumed it was something we could easily get under control and move on. I now know it is a marathon race, not a sprint. Watching my child suffer, and not being able to fix the problem despite my best effort made me feel like I was failing her. IMG_6044

It’s been lonely at times. Don’t get me wrong, we have the most amazing family and friends. They have supported us unconditionally every step of the way. But because she was diagnosed so young, we’ve never met another child her age with Crohn’s. I couldn’t call one of my mom friends and ask, “What anti-TNF drug worked for your child?” or “How are you potty training your two-year-old who is flaring?” Instead, we’ve pioneered this head-on, and I’ve completely relied on my faith to get me through. People often say how strong I am, but honestly, I believe it’s God’s strength in me that they see. When I look back on these past five years, I know without a doubt He has carried us. I can honestly say I am proud of the mother I have become due to this disease. I am brave and empathetic. I’ve developed grit and survive on grace.

What I want to say to parents of children with IBD

Take care of yourself. I always think of the airplane safety guide. Secure your oxygen mask before helping others. You cannot fully care for your child if you don’t take care of yourself first. Some days that may mean a 30-minute workout and drinking plenty of water. Other days it’s meeting with a counselor to address the emotional toll the disease has taken.

Let others help. They really want to. Use that time to step away and catch your breath.

See your child for who they are. Your child is more than their disease. They are uniquely designed for a specific purpose.

You can do this. I firmly believe that you were handpicked by God to be your child’s mother.  Continue to advocate and cheer them on. Take it one day at a time.

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Jadyn and her little sister

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” Philippians 1:6

You can follow Anna by checking out her blog: Grit to Grace

Anna’s Instagram: @grit.to.grace