A Colorado woman with stage 5 renal failure is months away from getting a new kidney, but she and her donor will have to look for another hospital due to UCHealth's vaccination policy. According to the system, transplant recipients and their living donors are required to be vaccinated against COVID, and the woman can't be operated on because neither she nor her donor has received the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine.
Leinali Lutali is in end-stage renal failure while the donor is her personal friend Jaimee Fougner. Both women are Christians and object to the vaccine on religious grounds: They object to the use of fetal cells in the testing phase of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
However, Lutali says that she already had COVID and has tested positive for the antibodies, which meant that she already has what is called natural immunity.
In a statement, the hospital says that the COVID-19 virus is especially deadly for recipients of kidney transplants. UCHealth spokesman Dan Weaver says the mortality rate observed for transplant patients with COVID-19 ranges from about 20 percent to more than 30 percent, which is far higher than the 1.6 percent fatality rate observed in kidney transplant patients in the United States.
The statement also notes that an organ transplant operation can lead to serious complications, and physicians must consider whether or not to recommend it – considering that living donors could also pass the COVID-19 infection to an organ recipient, threatening their lives. (Related: Refusing COVID vaccines is costing people their jobs, kids, life-saving medical treatments.)
Organ donors in the U.S. are coordinated through the national network run by the nonprofit organization, United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). The organization does not set the requirements for listing or removing someone as a transplant candidate, so transplant centers such as UCHealth make their own decisions according to their individual medical judgment.
Conditions on organ transplants are not new, either. Weaver notes that transplant centers have already required patients to get other vaccinations, stop smoking, avoid alcohol or otherwise demonstrate that they will take crucial measures and medications in an effort to ensure that they do well post-surgery and that the body will not "reject" its transplanted organ.
Colorado Rep. Tim Geitner says that he has spoken with UCHealth and that he is disappointed with its response. The system tells Geitner that there is "very little" it can do to accommodate those who don't have COVID-19 vaccinations.
Over 100,000 people are on the transplant waiting list in 2020, and only a fraction of these were able to have their procedures done. According to government data, an estimated 17 people die every day waiting for an organ.
Lutali and her kidney donor are looking at other states to get the procedure done as no Colorado hospital is willing to do it unless they take the COVID-19 vaccine.
It seems like Lutali may find it difficult to find a hospital that could accommodate her. The University of Washington Medical Center, for instance, follows the same rule that solid organ transplant patients must be fully vaccinated before their procedures unless they have a medical exemption. Religious exemptions do not apply.
The hospital says in its FAQ about vaccination and transplants: "UW Medicine has long required patients awaiting a solid organ transplant to be current on all critical vaccinations prior to their procedure."
Get more updates about vaccination status and hospital procedures at Pandemic.news.