Yes, hospitals can require organ transplant patients and donors to be vaccinated against COVID-19

Some hospitals in states including Colorado, Ohio and Washington are requiring transplant patients and their donors to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

On Oct. 5, Colorado state representative Tim Geitner shared a letter on his social media accounts from what appeared to be a hospital claiming the medical center would deny a woman a kidney transplant if she remained unvaccinated against COVID-19 after 30 days.

VERIFY viewer Kathy asked if the letter was real. And some people online are wondering if hospitals can legally remove unvaccinated transplant patients from their waitlists. 

THE QUESTION

Can hospitals require organ transplant patients and donors to be vaccinated against COVID-19? 

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, hospitals can require organ transplant patients and donors to be vaccinated against COVID-19. 

The letter shared by Geitner is also real, and the hospital said it is requiring COVID-19 vaccines for nearly all donors and recipients. 

WHAT WE FOUND

VERIFY’s sister station 9NEWS spoke with the woman who received the letter from UCHealth in Colorado. UCHealth said organ transplant recipients and living donors in their system are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 "in almost all situations."

In the 9NEWS report, the patient, Leilani Lutali, said the letter from UCHealth, a not-for-profit healthcare system based in Colorado, stated she would be removed from the hospital’s transplant waiting list if she and her donor did not begin the process of getting vaccinated within 30 days. Lutali and her donor said their religious beliefs are keeping them from receiving the vaccine. 

“I’m being coerced into making a decision that is one I’m not comfortable making right now in order to live,” Lutali told 9NEWS. 

Dan Weaver, the vice president of communications at UCHealth, told VERIFY in a statement that while the hospital cannot share or confirm any information about specific patients due to federal patient privacy laws, organ transplant recipients and living donors who are seeking care at UCHealth’s transplant centers are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 "in almost all situations."

Weaver said for people who test positive for COVID-19 among the general population, the mortality rate is about 1.6%, according to the CDC. Meanwhile, for transplant patients who contract COVID-19, the mortality rate ranges from about 20% to more than 30%, which “shows the extreme risk that COVID-19 poses to transplant recipients after their surgeries.” He also says a living donor could pass COVID-19 infection on to an organ recipient even if they initially test negative for the disease, which could put the patient’s life at risk. 

UCHealth and other transplant centers nationwide typically have specific requirements in place to protect transplant patients both during and after surgery, according to Weaver. He says patients may be required to receive certain vaccinations and may also be required to avoid alcohol, stop smoking, or prove that they will be able to continue taking anti-rejection medications long after their transplant surgery has been completed, stating that these requirements increase the likelihood that a transplant will be successful and the patient will avoid transplant rejection. 

“UCHealth’s priority is to provide excellent, safe care for transplant patients before, during and after a transplant surgery,” said Weaver. “An organ transplant is a unique surgery that leads to a lifetime of specialized management to ensure an organ is not rejected, which can lead to serious complications, the need for a subsequent transplant surgery, or even death. Physicians must consider the short- and long-term health risks for patients as they consider whether to recommend an organ transplant.” 

UCHealth isn’t alone. Hospitals in Washington and Ohio are also requiring transplant patients and donors to be vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Nancy Foster, the vice president of quality and patient safety policy at the American Hospital Association (AHA), told VERIFY in a statement that most surgeons prefer that their patients are vaccinated prior to undergoing surgery because it’s “an important step in ensuring they are protected from potentially falling prey to COVID-19 during their recovery.” She says when it comes to organ transplant patients, “this protection is exceptionally important.”

“Patients undergoing solid organ transplant will have to take a regimen of powerful drugs meant to suppress their body’s rejection of a foreign body, which is how the body perceives a new organ — and those drugs suppress the immune system,” said Foster. “This would leave the patient much more susceptible to infectious diseases and much more likely to have a bad course of COVID-19. Further, if patients were to wait to get their vaccine until after the surgery, it is unlikely that their immune system could mount the desired antibody reaction given that they are taking anti-rejection medications. That is why many transplant programs across the country insist patients get vaccinated for COVID-19.” 

The American Society of Transplantation (AST) says on its website that widespread vaccination is critical to stopping the pandemic. It recommends that transplant patients, along with their family, friends and close contacts, get vaccinated against COVID-19. It also encourages transplant patients to practice other mitigation methods, including handwashing, social distancing and avoiding large crowds. 

“Transplant patients can have severe disease from COVID-19 infection and may be more likely to require hospitalization or intensive unit care. Therefore, the benefits of vaccination appear to outweigh any unproven risks,” according to the AST. 

Organ transplant patients are considered to have moderately or severely compromised immune systems. The CDC recommends that immunocompromised individuals be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and it also encourages them to receive an additional dose of the vaccine. 

More from VERIFY: Yes, an Israeli study did find natural immunity is effective in fighting COVID-19, but health experts still recommend vaccination

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