UCHealth stands firm on denying organ transplants to patients, donors who are unvaccinated for COVID-19

UCHealth is taking heat from COVID-19 vaccine skeptics and a Colorado state legislator over its decision to “in almost all situations” require transplant patients and living donors be fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

Tim Geitner, a Republican member of the Colorado House of Representatives, posted on Twitter and Facebook images of a letter an anonymous patient had received from the UCHealth Transplant Center at Anschutz Medical Campus.

The letter said the patient had been placed as “inactive” on the kidney transplant waiting list “for non-compliance by not receiving the COVID vaccine.” The organization told the patient that they would have 30 days to begin a vaccination series, after which they would be removed from the kidney transplant list if still in noncompliance.

In a Facebook Live video, Geitner said he spoke to the health system about its “incredibly concerning” and “incredibly disgusting” transplant policy.

“The understanding is basically conform to this demand, take this COVID vaccine or otherwise you will be denied this life-saving procedure. Best of luck,” he said in the video. “[UCHealth is] basically saying they are willing to discriminate against an individual based on their vaccine status.”

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Geitner’s Facebook and Twitter posts garnered thousands of views, with comments both supporting and condemning the health system’s decision.

A representative of the Colorado provider acknowledged the policy and said that other transplant centers across the country are either making or have made similar changes to their requirements.

Dan Weaver, UCHealth’s vice president of communications, said the decision is based on data from clinical trials and studies suggesting the “extreme risk that COVID-19 poses to transplant recipients after their surgeries.”

He contrasted the current 1.6% COVID-19 mortality rate reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to studies reporting anywhere from 18% to 32% among for transplant recipients who contracted COVID-19.

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Vaccine-related restrictions have long been enforced by transplant centers for hepatitis B or measles, mumps and rubella vaccines, Weaver continued. These and other requirements involving substance use or anti-rejection medication adherence “increase the likelihood that a transplant will be successful and the patient will avoid rejection,” he said.

As for the living donor’s vaccination requirement, Weaver noted that they could pass a COVID-19 infection along to the recipient “even if they initially test negative for the disease, putting the patient’s life at risk.”

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

As of Oct. 5, the CDC reports that 76% of the U.S. population aged 12 years or older has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and that 65.6% have been fully vaccinated. Colorado reports that 77% of its eligible population has received one dose, while nearly 71% of those eligible have been fully vaccinated.

Hospitals and health systems have also taken a harder stand on vaccination when it comes to their own workforces, with many beginning to suspend or release the fraction of employees that haven’t complied with internal deadlines.