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Organ transplant surgeries could be casualty of coronavirus pandemic

The predicted influx of COVID-19 patients who need ICU and ventilators would mean fewer of those resources are available for organ donors.

EDMONDS, Wash. — The growing coronavirus outbreak is in danger of leading to another health crisis — a possible drop in the number of life-saving organ transplant surgeries in the Northwest, as hospitals make room for COVID-19 patients.

“We already have had some hospitals let us know that that may have to happen at some point in the future,” said Kevin O’Connor, President and CEO of LifeCenter Northwest.

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Ventilators are machines that help a patient maintain respiratory function. Currently, they are in short supply because they are needed to help the growing number of patients with severe cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

These same machines are also used to preserve organ function in deceased organ donors.

“My concern is that in the coming weeks there will be a growing demand for ICU beds and ventilators to care for COVID-19 patients. And those are the exact same resources that are needed to maintain brain dead patients who could become organ donors,” O’Connor said.

Last year, the organ procurement organization coordinated about 1,000 transplants last year in Alaska, Montana, North Idaho and Washington.

But that doesn't look likely this year.

“I can’t see a future scenario where we’ll be coming close to 1,000 transplants in 2020,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor says he’s concerned because some countries, like France, have already barred kidney transplants during the COVID-19 crisis. 

While patients awaiting a kidney transplant can be maintained for a long time through dialysis, LifeCenter is pleading with hospitals to move forward with heart, lung and liver transplants which have no similar alternative.

LifeCenter is also asking the public to do its part with social distancing and proper hygiene.

“It’s critically important that people take this seriously and do what they can to slow the spread of coronavirus,” O’Connor said.

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