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COVID-19 drastically slows organ donation

Posted at 11:37 PM, Apr 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-09 23:37:42-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Organ donation has seen a drastic decline. In some cases, more than 50% depending on the type of organ.

For instance, typically 70 to 80 heart transplants are performed across the United States each week. During the week of March 29th, only 40 heart transplants took place. Lung transplants average about 70 per week. During the week of March 29th, only 30 were performed across the nation.

"It's hard right now," Dr. Michael Dickinson, Section Chief for Advanced Heart Failure and Medical Director for Heart Failure Programs at Spectrum Health.

Dr. Dickinson also overseas heart transplants at Spectrum. Everyday, he and his team are evaluating which patients should receive an organ while others can wait an additional 3 to 6 months once the virus slows its spread.

In the case of a patient waiting for a heart transplant, doctors may determine to implant a ventricular assist device. Though, a VAD may not be compatible for all patients. Unlike a new heart, it can help the heart pump blood to the body. Many other organs, such as a lung or kidney, do not have a sufficient replacement.

"Having patients wait weeks and weeks in the hospital, waiting for a donor organ for a heart is hard. Lung and liver, there’s not a good replacement for those organs yet, and those transplants need to move forward," said Dr. Dickinson.

The reasons behind the organ decline are not totally known. Though, doctors speculate there are many reasons including the fact that COVID-19 patients cannot be organ donors for recipients, who are already immunosuppressed as a result of the operation. Hospitals also hit hard by the pandemic may not be able to support organ donation due to a lack of resources such as ventilators.

GIft of Life Michigan overseas organ donation, starting with the patients who are at the end of life and donate their organs.

"We spend all of our time, trying to encourage Michiganders to sign up in the Michigan organ registry to become donors, never anticipating something like this would perhaps limit us," said Dorrie Dills, CEO of Gift of Life. "We are doing everything we can when donation is an option to make it happen. But, there have been some circumstances that have been outside of our control that have been limiting."

Typically, Gift of Life monitors about 30 patients on a daily basis who could potentially become organ donors, if and once they are declared legally dead. The process can take days. Minimally, the process takes 48-hours or longer.

"That's one of the challenges that we are facing right now in hospitals because the ventilator shortage, the ICU bed shortage, and allowing us all the time that we need to match with the appropriate recipients is difficult for them because they need that bed and they need that ventilator. So we have been working collaboratively with our hospitals and certainly we are doing everything we can to make the process go as quickly as possible, and they have been very supportive in making sure donation in whatever form can and will continue during this pandemic," said Dills.

Some hospitals hit hard by the pandemic have stopped performing organ donation altogether. Doctors in West Michigan hope a strong surge won't occur here that could jeopardize performing transplants entirely.