DENVER — UCHealth confirmed Tuesday that organ transplant recipients and living donors must be vaccinated against COVID-19 "in almost all situations."
In a statement, the hospital system said studies indicate the mortality rate for transplant recipients who test positive for COVID ranges from 18% to 32%, compared to a 1.6% mortality rate among all people who have tested positive.
UCHealth said the policy change was driven by the significantly higher mortality rate, as well as the concern that living donors could still pass on a COVID infection after testing negative.
"This is why it is essential that both the recipient and the living donor be vaccinated and take other precautions prior to undergoing transplant surgery," the statement said. "Surgeries may be postponed until patients take all required precautions in order to give them the best chance at positive outcomes."
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UCHealth confirmed the updated policy after a letter was posted on Twitter by a Republican state representative saying a kidney transplant candidate's status was changed on the waiting list to inactive because they were not vaccinated.
The patient, Leilani Lutali, told 9NEWS she originally found out about the hospital's policy after her donor, Jaimee Fougner, was asked about her vaccination status during some testing required prior to the procedure.
"She said, 'Oh, by the way, have you been vaccinated for COVID-19?' I explained to her that no I hadn’t, and because of my religious beliefs I couldn’t be vaccinated for it," Fougner said. "And she said 'well, unfortunately, then that means your journey ends here.'”
About a week later, Lutali got a letter.
The letter, posted below, said she would be removed from the waiting list if they did not begin the process of getting vaccinated for COVID within 30 days.
“I found myself trying to understand where the Hippocratic oath comes into play here about do no harm," Lutali said. "I’m being coerced into making a decision that is one I’m not comfortable making right now in order to live.”
Both Lutali and her donor Fougner said their religious beliefs are keeping them from the vaccine because vaccine manufacturers used the fetal stem cell line in development.
Fougner, who is a medical assistant and was a medic in the United States Air Force, said she is not anti-vax.
“I get my flu shot every year," she said. "I’ve been vaccinated with all my childhood vaccines. In the military, you get a few extras for wherever you travel to. So we are not anti-vax. But for me religiously – this vaccine, I cannot take.”
Fougner said after doing further research, she has realized most modern medical products use the same stem cell line, and she has stopped using them. She said she believes God forgives "sins of ignorance."
Lutali said she is further concerned about the future impact of the vaccine.
"I am choosing to not go forward with something right now because I feel like I don’t have enough information to understand what the implications are to my health in the future,” she said.
The hospital system said transplant centers across the center have specific requirements in place to protect patients during and after surgery. Examples included requiring patients to get vaccinated for hepatitis B or MMR.
"Patients may also be required to avoid alcohol, stop smoking, or prove they will be able to continue taking their anti-rejection medications long after their transplant surgery," UCHealth said. "These requirements increase the likelihood that a transplant will be successful and the patient will avoid rejection."
UCHealth said some U.S. transplant centers have already added the COVID vaccine requirement, and others are currently in the process of making that change.
HealthOne, which operates a transplant center at Presbyterian/St. Luke's Hospital, said it handles transplants on a case-by-case basis. Physicians make the final decisions on the safest course of action for patients, according to a statement from HealthOne.
The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) sent the following statement when asked if it supports the policy:
"UNOS, as the national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), sets no policies or requirements for the listing (or removal) of any person as a transplant candidate. Each transplant center makes such decisions according to its individual medical judgment. Any listing criteria are part of hospital-specific protocols and are not determined or overseen by the OPTN.
"Our authority begins when a transplant program accepts and lists a transplant candidate, and we primarily address the matching of organs, not the assessment or non-transplant treatment of patients."
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