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People who want organ transplants must get the COVID-19 vaccine, a hospital says

Colorado's UCHealth hospital system is requiring any prospective organ transplant recipients to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Here, a man receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Thornton, Colo., earlier this year.
Michael Ciaglo
Getty Images
Colorado's UCHealth hospital system is requiring any prospective organ transplant recipients to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Here, a man receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Thornton, Colo., earlier this year.

A large hospital system in Colorado says people on its organ transplant wait list won't be offered an organ if they refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine, citing the "significant risk the virus poses to transplant recipients."

UCHealth, which operates 12 hospitals from its headquarters in Aurora, Colo., says it has long been standard practice to require many organ recipients or donors to get vaccines such as hepatitis B or the MMR shot.

Organ wait list status hinges on the COVID-19 vaccine

The hospital system added COVID-19 to its vaccine list a few weeks ago. But the change is drawing notice now, after Colorado state Rep. Tim Geitner publicized the case of a woman who says the hospital told her has no chance of receiving a kidney transplant because she isn't vaccinated.

"UCHealth denies life saving treatment," the Republican lawmaker said via Twitter.

In the letter Geitner posted, the woman was informed that she would remain on the hospital's wait list for a kidney — but that her status would be deemed "inactive" until she gets the vaccine, according to an image of a letter addressed from UCHealth that Geitner shared online.

Unvaccinated people are at far greater risk, the hospital system says

A hospital official told NPR that they are unable to share or confirm information about specific patients. But in response to a flurry of questions about its policy, UCHealth said that people who undergo an organ transplant are routinely subject to a number of health requirements, from a drug regimen to prevent rejection to abstaining from tobacco or alcohol — and getting vaccines.

The "vast majority" of its patients who are hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, according to UCHealth. And it says organ recipients are at increased risk for the worst outcomes from the coronavirus.

"Various studies show that between 20% and 30% of unvaccinated transplant recipients who contract COVID-19 have died," the hospital system said in an update posted late Wednesday.

The vaccine requirements and other measures "are in place to ensure patients have the best chances of recovery and good outcomes, UCHealth said.

In late summer, UCHealth adopted a vaccine requirement for all of the employees at its hospitals and other facilities.

"An unvaccinated person is about 50 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than a vaccinated person, and nearly 300 times more likely to die if infected," the hospital said at the time.

Organ transplant groups have backed the COVID-19 vaccine

Organ transplant wait lists are highly competitive, with hopeful recipients greatly outnumbering the available kidneys, livers and other organs that become available each year.

"On any given day there are around 75,000 people on the active waiting list for organs," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "but only around 8,000 deceased organ donors each year, with each providing on average 3.5 organs. Living donors provide on average only around 6,000 organs per year."

This year, both the American Liver Foundation and the National Kidney Foundation have called for wide access to the COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots for organ recipients, citing their immunocompromised health status.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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