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COVID-19 is affecting organ transplants

The coronavirus pandemic led to a drop in transplants, and some people still can't donate.

This story is the latest installment in our YouTube series, "What's Brewing,” investigative reporter Jenna Bourne's series of homemade deep dives into important issues during the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to check out the series and subscribe to our YouTube channel: The Deeper Dive.

Krystle Pitts used to spend 12 hours each week hooked up to a dialysis machine.

“My kidney function was around 5 percent, so they were just about all the way gone,” said Pitts, a Tampa performer.

After four years on the waitlist, she got a call on April 11 – just over a month after COVID-19 first appeared in Florida: There was a kidney ready for her in Jacksonville.

She was about to get a transplant during a pandemic.

“This was my first time really leaving the house, outside of dialysis. And I was leaving and heading to a hospital and, you know, that’s where these cases are. People are in the hospital, who are sick,” said Pitts.

Credit: Provided photo
Krystle Pitts

She says she felt better once she got to Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville and saw all the precautions being taken there.

“As soon as we got into that room, they did COVID testing for myself and for my mom. And, so, we basically were quarantined in that room until the next day, when they came back with our results. And once we had negative test results, they were able to do the surgery,” Pitts said.

She was one of the lucky ones.

During that time frame, from mid-March to mid-May, data from the United Network for Organ Sharing – UNOS for short – shows a spike in waitlist inactivations because of COVID-19 precautions.

Credit: UNOS
Waitlist inactivations

It also shows the number of transplants plummeted.

Credit: UNOS

“While deceased donor transplants dropped at that point by about 50 percent, living donor transplants dropped by about 90 percent,” said UNOS Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Klassen. “This was driven by concerns about safety, the ability to do testing on donors at that point, and also hospital resources that were diverted to take care of patients associated with the pandemic.”

Plus, transplants from living donors are usually considered elective surgeries.

This March 20 executive order from Florida’s governor put elective procedures on hold.

Another setback: People who die from COVID-19 can’t donate their organs, even if they registered to be organ donors.

That means for the past six months – and for the foreseeable future – those precious, life-saving organs can’t be used.

“We really don’t have data on that. Certainly, we all know the numbers of the many people who have died of COVID-19. How many of those might potentially have been donors? It’s not possible to say,” said Dr. Klassen.

It’s especially troubling when you consider that very few people die in a way that makes it possible for their organs to be donated.

“Their death has to occur in a hospital. They’re on a ventilator. And, so, it is a relatively unusual thing,” said Dr. Klassen.

It’s also the way a lot of people die from COVID-19: In a hospital, on a ventilator.

“Well, that’s true. But dying of COVID, there are concerns about disease transmission,” said Dr. Klassen.

Keep in mind, people who don’t die in a hospital on a ventilator can still be tissue donors. That includes skin, corneas – things that can make a big difference in people’s lives.

COVID-19 survivors may still be able to donate their organs after they’ve recovered from the virus, according to UNOS.

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay
Dr. David Klassen, UNOS Chief Medical Officer

The transplant system has rebounded in a big way since mid-May.

“I think, really, donor testing – the availability of testing for COVID-19 really drove a lot of that. In the beginning, testing resources were limited,” said Dr. Klassen. Hospital resources that were stressed in the beginning, those challenges were overcome in most cases.”

Plus, elective surgeries have come back, making living donor transplants possible.

“Transplant numbers are very strong in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, Tampa General Hospital is on pace to break our own record for the number of transplants done this year. Transplant numbers across the country are on similar record-breaking pace. Tampa General Hospital is home to one of the busiest transplant centers in the nation,” said Tampa General Hospital Director of Marketing and Communications Jennifer McVan in an email to 10 Investigates.

For more perspective on transplants in Tampa Bay, 10 Investigates caught up with LifeLink Manager of Public Affairs Ashley Moore.

LifeLink is a Tampa-based organization that works with local organ donors and their families.

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay
Ashley Moore

Moore told 10 Investigates that COVID-19 is increasing the need for transplants.

“There are some patients that have recovered from COVID-19, but they’ve had complications and they’ve needed lung transplants. And some of them have actually already received them,” said Moore.

It’s just another reason why Krystle Pitts says it’s important to register as a donor.

“Someone was able to save a life at the end of their life. So, that means a lot to me. That person and their family are kind of like my personal superheroes now,” said Pitts.

Credit: Provided Photo
Krystle Pitts

 

“One donor actually has the ability to save up to eight lives with organ donation and enhance up to 75 through tissue donation,” said Moore.

You can register as a donor by going to registerme.org.

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