For people with multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects the nervous system, the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially challenging, says Dr. Jaime Imitola, the director of UConn Health’s division of multiple sclerosis and translational neuroimmunology.
“I think it’s been challenging because patients with multiple sclerosis … depending on how the disease is presented … can have multiple symptoms, multiple levels of disability [and] there is a lot of heterogeneity in the disease process,” said Imitola. “And if you put that on top of a pandemic, and a potential for viral infection, obviously many, many patients will be very worried about catching the disease.”
As a director at UConn Health, Imitola has seen firsthand the effects COVID-19 has on patients with MS. According to a UConn Today article, 20 of Imitola’s patients have been infected with COVID-19 within the past year.
Imitola says he encourages his patients to get vaccinated in an effort to reduce their risk of getting hospitalized with the virus.
“What I tell my patients [is] that they have to operate as if everybody’s infected around them — that if they have the opportunity to get vaccinated, it should be better because they will reduce the risk of having to go to the hospital or get infected with COVID-19,” Imitola added.
Despite vaccines and boosters, Imitola says people with MS remain at-risk.
“In the beginning it was very difficult to start working with the patients because they were obviously scared,” Imitola said. “As we [found out] more about how to manage the rates [of COVID-19 spread] and we started vaccinating people … things have been a little easier. But it still is a significant problem because even though patients with MS … have about the same risk that patients without MS [do], it’s not the MS [that] makes [COVID-19] have high rates — it’s the MS plus comorbidities, that means that patients are older, or they have other diseases, or even [that] they have immunosuppression.”
The medications prescribed to individuals with MS are also immunosuppressive, which puts them at more risk if they get infected with COVID-19.
“… Patients [with MS] are being treated with medications that are suppressing the immune system,” Imitola said. “Cancer patients need a lot of medications, and these medications are very, very toxic … [and] can decrease the immune system. The same happens with MS patients.”
Imitola stresses the importance of risk mitigation, namely because one cannot physically see the spread of COVID-19.
“One of the issues is that when you have a public health problem like this, you don’t know where COVID-19 is,” he said. “You can kind of see the virus, you kind of follow the virus, but at the end of the day, it’s all about mitigation of risk. So [that is] everything that we do from vaccination [to] putting on masks, ventilation, [not] going to crowded places [and] getting the boosters.”
According to Imitola, everyone, including those without MS, needs to be resilient in regard to COVID-19, since the virus will not disappear anytime soon.
“We need to think about COVID resilience,” he said. “The actual pandemic … may be declared over, but then pandemics turn into endemic diseases, and endemic diseases are the ones that we see all the time. [COVID-19] is not going to magically disappear.”
More information regarding UConn Health’s MS Center and Imitola’s work can be found on UConn Health’s website.