DENVER, Colo. - If you have not been vaccinated against the coronavirus, you may have a difficult time getting an organ transplant in some areas of the United States.
Multiple hospital systems are denying organ transplants to patients who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 "in almost all situations," citing studies that show unvaccinated patients have a significantly higher risk for severe illness and death if they get COVID-19.
UCHealth in Colorado is one of the systems that implemented the policy, making the shot mandatory for the "safe care" of its patients.
Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center investigational pharmacy technician Sara Berech prepares a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine for a clinical trial on December 15, 2020 in Aurora, Colorado.
"For transplant patients who contract COVID-19, the mortality rate ranges from about 20% to more than 30%. This shows the extreme risk that COVID-19 poses to transplant recipients after their surgeries," a spokesperson for UCHealth said in a statement. 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. Some U.S. transplant centers already have this requirement in place, and others are making this change in policy now."
The hospital system noted that other vaccinations, including hepatitis B and MMR, are also required to protect patients during and after surgery.
"These requirements increase the likelihood that a transplant will be successful and the patient will avoid rejection," the spokesperson continued.
And other transplant centers have followed suit, putting similar policies into place.
The University of Washington Medical Center requires transplant patients to have the vaccine, or they will be removed from the waitlist and deemed ineligible for a transplant, unless they have a specific medical exemption.
"After a transplant, your immune system is suppressed and in a prolonged weakened state. This makes you less able to develop an appropriate immune response to the vaccine. It also makes you more vulnerable to infections from viruses like COVID-19 that can lead to severe illness or death," the center wrote on its website.
They did not comment further on their decision, but told FOX 13 Seattle that their policy started "a few weeks ago."
UW Medicine echoed UCHealth’s policy, saying they have for years required up-to-date vaccinations for all patients on transplant waiting lists. The difference now is that COVID-19 vaccination is on the list, too.
The recent policies have drawn backlash by some who believe the COVID-19 vaccine should remain a patient’s personal choice and not compromise that person’s ability to get a life-saving transplant.
But health care officials are leaning on several studies that indicate a higher risk of severe infection in transplant recipients who remain unvaccinated.
One broad study found kidney transplant patients who contracted COVID-19 had a 21% mortality rate. Meanwhile, other studies found mortality rates ranging from 18% to 32% for transplant recipients who acquired COVID-19.
For comparison, Johns Hopkins University of Medicine says the current mortality rate for everyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 is 1.6% — illustrating a much high risk for severe disease in those with transplants than those without.
Currently, more than two-thirds (77.9%) of adults in the U.S. have at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Promising CDC data shows a steady decline in cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus over the last month — likely in part from an increase in COVID-19 vaccinations among Americans.
Last month, a CDC study showed unvaccinated people are nearly 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19, and about as likely to be hospitalized with the coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Getting vaccinated protects against severe illness from COVID-19, including the Delta variant. Monitoring COVID-19 incidence by vaccination status might provide early signals of potential changes in vaccine effectiveness that can be confirmed through robust controlled studies," the study authors wrote.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a briefing that researchers "found further evidence of the power of vaccination."
"Looking at cases over the past two months when the delta variant was the predominant variant circulating in this country, those who were under-vaccinated were about four-and-a-half times more likely to get COVID-19, over 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die from the disease," Walensky said.
More than 106,000 people are on the transplant waitlist, while an estimated 17 people die each day waiting for an organ, according to the federal government.