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Unvaccinated patients at UCHealth in Colorado are going to have a tough time getting organ transplants, as the health network said that both donors and recipients will be required to get vaccinated “in almost all situations.”
Organs are a severely limited resource: More than 100,000 people are on the national organ transplant waiting list, and just 39,000 transplants were performed in 2020, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. And studies vary on the exact number but show that the mortality rate for transplant recipients is much greater than that for the general population, UCHealth spokesperson Dan Weaver told VICE News.
“The studies show roughly one in four transplant recipients who contract COVID-19 will die,” Weaver told VICE News Wednesday. “So it’s a very significant risk.”
UCHealth has already begun informing patients that they won’t get transplants if they’re unvaccinated. Leilani Lutali, a woman in Stage 5 renal failure, and her donor, Jaimee Fougner, were marked as inactive on the hospital’s transplant list since they had not been vaccinated against COVID-19, they told CBS Denver.
Fougner told CBS Denver she hadn’t gotten the vaccine for religious reasons, while Lutali told CBS Denver there were too many unknowns about the vaccine. (The vaccine has been proven to be both safe and highly effective in preventing severe disease as a result of COVID-19.)
Colorado state representative Tim Geitner, a Republican, posted on Facebook a letter that UCHealth sent to Lutali, whom Geitner didn’t identify by name but said has “about 12 percent of her kidney function left,” and who had found a local donor in Fougner, but was told by UCHealth that she couldn’t get a transplant until she agrees to get vaccinated.
Lutali met Fougner in a Bible study group last year, she told CBS Denver; neither woman has been vaccinated. Lutali also told CBS Denver that she was told in August that vaccination wasn’t a requirement, but that by Sept. 28, that had changed.
“The transplant team at the University of Colorado Hospital has determined that it is necessary to place you inactive on the waiting list,” the letter says. “You will be inactivated on the list for non-compliance by not receiving the COVID vaccine.” If the recipient does not begin her vaccination series within a month, according to the letter, she’ll be removed from the kidney transplant waiting list.
Geitner said the woman has “tested positive for the immunity, she already has those COVID antibodies on board”; the data so far, however, has been unclear on how effective or long-lasting natural immunity is as opposed to protection provided by vaccines.
It’s not uncommon for transplant centers to impose eligibility requirements on participants. At the Cleveland Clinic, transplant evaluations include medical, psychosocial, and financial evaluations, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center requires liver transplant recipients to be free of alcohol consumption for at least six months.
“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 told the Washington Post.
“Physicians must consider the short- and long-term health risks for patients as they consider whether to recommend an organ transplant.”
Fougner and Lutali are now looking for hospitals in other states that will allow them to complete the procedure without being vaccinated.
“It’s your choice on what treatment you have,” Fougner told CBS Denver. “In Leilani’s case, the choice has been taken from her. Her life has now been held hostage because of this mandate.”