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October 8, 2021

Why UCHealth won't offer transplants for unvaccinated patients in 'almost all situations'

Daily Briefing

    UCHealth in Colorado said patients not vaccinated against Covid-19 will be denied organ transplants in "almost all situations," citing research showing unvaccinated transplant patients are at high risk of death from Covid-19.

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    UCHealth inactivates patient on kidney transplant list

    On Tuesday, Rep. Tim Geitner (R-Colo.) posted on Twitter a letter from UCHealth to an unvaccinated patient saying she would be "inactivated" on the kidney transplant waiting list and had 30 days to get her Covid-19 vaccine before being removed from the list entirely.

    While Geitner did not identify the patient in his tweet, a woman named Leilani Lutali confirmed she was the patient. She argued she is "being coerced into making a decision that is one I'm not comfortable making right now in order to live."

    Lutani has end-stage renal disease. She said she and her planned kidney donor, who is also unvaccinated, are looking for another transplant option out of state, as they haven't found a hospital in Colorado that will perform the transplant before both patients are vaccinated.

    UCHealth confirmed that "in almost all situations, transplant recipients and living donors" within the health system "are now required to be vaccinated against Covid-19 in addition to meeting other health requirements."

    Dan Weaver, a spokesperson for UCHealth, said other transplant centers throughout the United States have similar policies to UCHealth or are starting to transition to them.

    According to the Washington Post, organ donations in the United States are coordinated by the nonprofit United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). But since the organization doesn't set requirements for transplant centers to list or remove candidates, UNOS spokeswoman Anne Paschke said health systems such as UCHealth can "make such decisions according to [their] individual medical judgment."

    Why health systems are requiring vaccination for transplant patients

    Transplant centers nationwide have requirements for patients to get other vaccinations, stop smoking, avoid drinking alcohol, or prove they will take important medications to make sure their body doesn't reject the transplant, Weaver said.

    The University of Washington medical centers also require solid organ transplant patients to be fully vaccinated prior to their procedures unless they have a medical exemption. The health system explained, "UW Medicine has long required patients awaiting a solid organ transplant to be current on all critical vaccinations prior to their procedure."

    UCHealth said its policy "increase[s] the likelihood that a transplant will be successful and the patient will avoid rejection."

    Research has shown that Covid-19 is especially fatal for kidney transplant patients, the Post reports. According to Weaver, the mortality rate for transplant patients who develop Covid-19 ranges between 20% to more than 30%, which is significantly higher than Covid-19's general mortality rate of 1.6%.

    Weaver added that a living donor could potentially transmit the coronavirus to an organ recipient, which would also put the patient's life at risk.

    "An organ transplant is a unique surgery that leads to a lifetime of specialized management to ensure an organ is not rejected, which can lead to serious complications, the need for a subsequent transplant surgery, or even death," Weaver said. "Physicians must consider the short- and long-term health risks for patients as they consider whether to recommend an organ transplant." (Knowles/Anders, Washington Post, 10/6; Pitofsky, USA Today, 10/7)

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