Colorado Hospital System Denies Organ Transplants to Unvaccinated Patients, Forcing Woman to Search Elsewhere

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Posted: Oct 06, 2021 5:30 PM
Colorado Hospital System Denies Organ Transplants to Unvaccinated Patients, Forcing Woman to Search Elsewhere

Source: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

UCHealth confirmed they have a new policy that denies transplants to those who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 after a tweet from Colorado State Sen. Tim Geitner (R) mentioned that a Colorado resident was denied a transplant. Geitner also spoke about this policy in a Facebook live video.

That resident is Leilani Lutali, Emily Crane reported for The New York Post. A few days ago Lutali received a letter from the hospital that her waiting list status for a kidney transplant has been changed to "inactive" because she is not vaccinated. Lutali has stage 5 renal failure. 

Her donor, Jaimee Fougner, whom she met in Bible study 10 months, is also not vaccinated. 

As Tori Mason reported for CBS Denver, after the women gave an interview with the outlet:

“It’s your choice on what treatment you have. In Leilani’s case, the choice has been taken from her. Her life has now been held hostage because of this mandate,” said Fougner.

Fougner says she hasn’t received the vaccine for religious reasons. Lutali hasn’t gotten the shot because she says there are too many unknowns. Until last week, neither woman thought they needed to be vaccinated for the transplant.

“At the end of August, they confirmed that there was no COVID shot needed at that time,” said Lutali. “Fast forward to Sept. 28. That’s when I found out. Jamie learned they have this policy around the COVID shot for both for the donor and the recipient.”

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UCHealth says they are “non-compliant by not receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.” The hospital has given them 30 days to begin the vaccine series. If they refuse, they will be removed from the kidney transplant list.

“I said I’ll sign a medical waiver. I have to sign a waiver anyway for the transplant itself, releasing them from anything that could possibly go wrong,” said Lutali. “It’s surgery, it’s invasive. I sign a waiver for my life. I’m not sure why I can’t sign a waiver for the COVID shot.”

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“Here I am, willing to be a direct donor to her. It does not affect any other patient on the transplant list,” said Fougner. “How can I sit here and allow them to murder my friend when I’ve got a perfectly good kidney and can save her life?”

The hospital's statement addressed safety reasons. As Crane mentioned:

The health system said the driving force behind the policy change was studies showing transplant patients are more likely to die if they contract COVID-19. The mortality rate for transplant patients who get COVID is more than 20 percent, according to UCHealth.

“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,” UCHealth said in a statement.

“Surgeries may be postponed until patients take all required precautions in order to give them the best chance at positive outcomes.”

It wasn’t immediately clear when the new policy was put in place or what situations did not warrant a COVID vaccine. 

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UCHealth doubled down on its new policy, saying other transplant centers across the country already have COVID vaccine mandates in place and others are introducing it now.

“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,” UCHealth said in a statement.  

“Physicians must consider the short and long-term health risks for patients as they consider whether to recommend an organ transplant.”

UCHealth said there are specific requirements in place prior to transplants taking place. In some instances, patients are required to have other vaccinations, such as hepatitis B, or may be required to avoid alcohol, smoking or prove they can continue taking anti-rejection medications.

“These requirements increase the likelihood that a transplant will be successful and the patient will avoid rejection,” the statement said.

“In almost all situations, transplant recipients and living donors at UCHealth are now required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in addition to meeting other health requirements and receiving additional vaccinations.”

A peer-reviewed study that was published on July 28, 2021 noted that "Kidney transplant (KT) recipients are considered a high-risk group for unfavorable outcomes in the course of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)." As far as the methods go, the "multicenter cohort study enrolled 1,680 KT recipients diagnosed with COVID-19 between March and November 2020, from 35 Brazilian centers."

The kidneyfund.org's FAQ section says those with kidney disease should get the vaccine, with some disclaimers:

Should I get the COVID-19 vaccine if I have kidney disease?

Yes, the National Kidney Foundation, American Society of Nephrology and American Society of Transplantation all recommend the COVID-19 vaccine for people living with kidney disease or who have had a kidney transplant. People with kidney disease have a higher chance of getting very sick from COVID-19, including needing a hospital stay or even death. The vaccines work well to prevent you from getting COVID-19 and can prevent you from getting very sick if you do get COVID-19.

While the COVID-19 vaccine is very effective, data shows that people with kidney disease or who have had a kidney transplant may not have the same level of protection from COVID-19 as other people. Even if a person with kidney disease or kidney transplant is vaccinated, it is extremely important that they follow all guidelines to avoid being exposed to COVID-19. The FDA and CDC recommend a third dose of the vaccine for these people.

If you have questions about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, talk to your doctor.

This point is repeated in another FAQ header:

While the COVID-19 vaccine is very effective, research now shows that people who are on treatments that weaken their immune system, such as transplant recipients or people on dialysis, may not have the same level of protection from COVID-19 as other people. Even if a transplant recipient is vaccinated, it is extremely important that they follow all guidelines to avoid being exposed to COVID-19. The FDA and CDC recommend a third dose of the vaccine for these people.

Other caveats and disclaimers are addressed in other questions:

Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for me?

If you have kidney disease or are on dialysis

There is no information about the safety of the vaccine specific to people with kidney disease or who are on dialysis. However, the vaccine clinical trials included participants who have other health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease, lung disease, asthma and HIV. The results of the clinical trials showed that the vaccine is safe for people who have these health problems. Talk with your doctor to know if the COVID-19 vaccine is safe for you.

If you have a kidney transplant

The COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials did not get enough data on the safety of the vaccines for people who take immunosuppressive drugs, such as kidney transplant recipients. However, vaccines that do not include a living virus, like the COVID-19 vaccine, are generally safe. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not include a living virus, so they are expected to be safe for transplant recipients.

If you have a transplant, ask your nephrologist (kidney doctor) if the COVID-19 vaccine is safe for you.

If you are a living kidney donor or plan to donate your kidney in the future

The COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials did not get information about the effect on people who have donated their kidney in the past. However, if you are in good health and do not have a history of severe side effects from vaccines, there are no special safety concerns for you at this time. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine and being an organ donor.

Lutali and Fougner are looking at other hospitals which will perform the transplant but have needed to look elsewhere since they haven't had any success in Colorado.

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