Organ transplants dive amid virus crisis, start to inch back

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Herb Hoeptner

This April 1, 2020 photo provided by Herb Hoeptner shows him and his wife, Diane, at the UCSF hospital in San Francisco the day after surgery to donate one of her kidneys to him. Organ transplants have plummeted as COVID-19 swept through communities. But the team led by Dr. Chris Freise, interim transplant director at the University of California, San Francisco, allowed living kidney transplants for people like Herb Hoeptner, who was on the brink of needing dialysis. "When you have kidneys that have nothing left, you either go on dialysis or you die. That was much more of a concern to me than coronavirus," said Hoeptner. (Courtesy Herb Hoeptner via AP)

WASHINGTON – Organ transplants plummeted as COVID-19 swept through communities, with surgeons wary of endangering living donors and unable to retrieve possibly usable organs from the dead -- and hospitals sometimes too full even when they could.

Deceased donor transplants -- the most common kind -- dropped by about half in the U.S. and 90% in France from late February into early April, researchers reported Monday in the journal Lancet.

Transplants from living donors had a similarly staggering dive, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which runs the U.S. transplant system. There were 151 living donor transplants in the U.S. in the second week of March when a pandemic was declared. There were only 16 such transplants the week of April 5, according to UNOS.

It’s too soon to know how many people waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant may die not from COVID-19 infection but because the pandemic blocked their chance at a new organ. Kidney transplants make up the vast majority of the drop, but heart, lung and liver transplants declined, too.

Living donations might be rescheduled, but missed organs from a deceased donor are lost opportunities, wrote Lancet lead author Dr. Alexandre Loupy, a kidney specialist who heads the Paris Transplant Group.

More recent counts by UNOS show that transplants starting inching back in late April, with U.S. hospitals trying to decide how to safely ramp up.

Geographic variation could offer important lessons, said another study author, Dr. Peter Reese of the University of Pennsylvania.

“Transplant centers and patients really want to get going again, but there are all these questions,” said Reese, whose team is collecting data from Canada and other parts of Europe for a closer look. “We need to be finding places that maintained their transplant rates and finding out what they did.”