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COVID-19 update: protecting patients, staff and the community

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As the COVID-19 pandemic enters a new month, two things are clear: organ transplant recipients (along with everyone else) need to take precautions to protect themselves and Gift of Life Michigan is still working with hospital transplant centers to provide life-saving organs to patients in need.

“We’re doing everything we can to engage people and make sure that people who are waiting for an organ transplant, or donors or donor families that still want to donate, know that we’re still here, and we’re still making every effort to make that happen,” said Dorrie Dils, CEO of Gift of Life Michigan.

The COVID-19 virus has impacted organ and tissue recovery in Michigan as it has across the country. With the uncertainty surrounding the virus and how quickly it can spread, potential donors who test positive for the disease are not medically suitable for donation. As a result, the number of eligible organ and tissue donors has decreased and many non-critical transplants have been postponed.

Dils and Tim Makinen, chief communications officer at Gift of Life Michigan, conducted a Facebook Live session this week to address those and other issues related to the virus and attempts to contain it in support of National Donate Life Month.  

Here are some of the questions addressed:

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected organ donation?

The spread of the virus has made it more difficult to find donors whose organs are eligible for successful transplantation.   

Gift of Life Michigan’s work is heavily dependent on our partnership with donor hospitals, who have been under incredible pressure because of the pandemic. Access to hospitals has been understandably limited at this time, which presents challenges to monitoring potential donors and discussing the donation option with families.

We’ve been attempting to keep donation going as we’ve navigated the situation, but we’re also receiving more and more referrals that are COVID-positive, which makes those individuals unable to donate.

Because COVID-19 is an infectious disease, passing that along to an organ or tissue recipient would be a very serious event. We’re very carefully monitoring those patients and not pursuing donation.

Can people still get transplants right now?

Yes. With any transplant, transplant centers and the physicians work with their patients to evaluate the risk of the transplant procedure, especially during a pandemic. They look at whether the patient needs a transplant immediately to live, or if it makes more sense to try to hold off on the surgery. Right now, especially here in Michigan, transplants are being completed for people who are very, very sick and have no other option but to go ahead and receive that organ.

In non-critical cases, the entire hospital atmosphere must be evaluated. Most hospitals in Michigan – particularly here in southeast Michigan – are overwhelmed with COVID-positive patients who are taking up beds, ventilators and other hospital resources. Bringing in somebody for a transplant and introducing them to that environment is not ideal. Many individuals are being asked to wait out this pandemic at home until the transplant is safer for them.

We are also still working to recover organs and send them to areas of the country that are not as severely afflicted as ours. 

What kind of testing is being done?

Testing for infectious diseases is always performed on any potential organ or tissue donor. We’ve added COVID-19 testing to our process; we did that in mid-March, as the tests became available in Michigan. We test all potential organ donors, whether they have symptoms or not, before we proceed with recovery.

What are some of the things Gift of Life Michigan is doing to meet the challenges of the pandemic?

Gift of Life has implemented all the recommendations from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention throughout the response to the pandemic. Administrative and other support staff have been working remotely if they are able to do so. We are taking additional cleaning precautions at our headquarters in Ann Arbor; any onsite staff have been deployed to work areas that allow them to maintain social distancing guidelines.

Our field staff works directly with hospitals to meet their health and safety protocols in order to protect themselves, patients, hospital staff and the communities we serve.

Will there be a shortage of organs in the coming months?

There’s always a shortage of organs. Right now, in Michigan there are nearly 2,800 people waiting for a transplant, and nationwide there are about 113,000 patients. In many areas of the country, organ donation has slowed down; Sadly, the shortage may grow, and that’s why we need to continue to do our work and encourage people to register to be donors. When we get through this pandemic, those people who still desperately need an organ transplant are still going to be there.

When will living donation start up again?

Hospital transplant centers are monitoring this. It’s unlikely there will be a specific day when the switch gets flipped; it’s probably going to be a gradual process. So no definitive answer right now; it would depend on the circumstances and patient safety factors at the individual hospitals and transplant centers.

You can watch the entire session on our Youtube Channel.

Gift of Life continues to advise organ transplant recipients and their caregivers to follow all CDC guidelines on social distancing and other preventive measures and to consult with their physicians if they think they have developed any symptoms of the disease.

Dils said she is proud of the way staff has stepped up to meet this unprecedented challenge and continue to provide hope for the thousands of people on the Organ Transplant Waiting List, as well as to honor the wishes of those who are already on it.

“I’ve seen people step up and do some remarkable things,” she said. “They’ve been very creative; they’ve come up with solutions to overcome the barriers they face every day.”

To sign up on the Michigan Organ Donor Registry, visit golm.org.