Transplant patients are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and must take extra precautions to protect themselves during this pandemic. Here’s how the University Health Transplant Center is making sure patients stay safe while still giving them the life-saving care they need during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Transplant patients are at a higher risk of infection
Transplant patients must take immunosuppressive drugs or drugs that suppress immune system function. These drugs are essential for transplant patients because they lower the body’s ability to reject a transplanted organ – which our immune system recognizes as a foreign body. Without these drugs, our body will attack and damage the transplanted organ.
While these drugs are essential, one of the side effects of immunosuppressants is that it lowers the body’s ability to fight infection - including the COVID-19 virus. Usually, this is more of a problem immediately after someone receives a transplant or during treatment for a patient whose body rejects a transplanted organ. Patients are especially vulnerable to infections during these times because the immunosuppressant dosage is usually high.
After 6 months to a year after a transplant, the dosage of immunosuppressant drugs are frequently lowered and the side effects become less severe. At this point in recovery, the body’s ability to fight infection increases because the immune system is no longer as suppressed.
However, patients who receive a transplanted organ should always look out for signs and symptoms of infection and rejection of the organ. These symptoms include:
- A decrease in urination
- Tenderness in the new organ or around the area of the organ
- Urine in the blood
- “Flu-like" symptoms which include feeling achy and tired
- A rapid increase in weight (more than 3 pounds in 2 days)
If you experience any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor right away.
Are transplant patients at an increased risk if they get COVID-19?
If you're a transplant patient, you are at higher risk of getting infections. It's' very important that you take extra precautions when going out in public, especially if the area you live in has a high rate of COVID-19 cases. If you have to go out among the general public, follow these safety measures to help protect yourself:
- Wear a mask
- Wash your hands frequently
- Limit the amount of time spent in public
- Limit the number of people you're exposed to
- Practice social distancing recommendations according to the CDC
Additionally, anyone who lives with or comes into contact with a transplant patient, should also take extra precautions. This includes limiting the amount of time spent in public and minimizing the number of people they encounter. This is necessary to help reduce the likelihood of exposing the transplant patient to COVID-19.
If a family member living with someone with a transplant is diagnosed with COVID-19 it is best that they:
- Avoid all further contact with the transplant patient (this includes having a separate bedroom and bathroom if possible)
- Wear a mask and maintain 6 feet of distance away from the transplant patient at all times
- Monitor the transplant patient's symptoms and contact their doctor if they develop fever, cough or shortness of breath
Living donor transplants resume at University Hospital
According to the American Society of Transplantation, the risk of acquiring COVID-19 from an organ donation is low. And all hospitals, including University Hospital, carefully screen organ donors for COVID-19 symptoms and exposure history. Additionally, organ donors who may have been exposed to novel coronavirus are being asked to postpone their donation 14-28 days.
With these precautions in place, University Hospital has begun to resume non-emergency living donor organ transplants since elective surgeries are now allowed again in the state of Texas.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, organ donations and transplants have decreased dramatically. Because of this, University Hospital is encouraging those who wish to donate or receive a transplant to arrange interviews with the transplant team. All patients and donors are being screened for COVID-19 prior to surgery to make sure they don't have the virus. The transplant center has also instituted a required COVID-19 education course for the family members and caregivers of donors and recipients.
Jennifer Milton, the chief administrative officer for the Transplant Center emphasizes how important this education course is, “We need all members of a household to have a good understanding of prevention and the risks of COVID-19 transmission for a newly immunosuppressed patient,” Milton says.
Milton also reminds the public to donate blood since transplant patients and other surgeries depend on an adequate blood supply. The public can donate to the University Health blood bank located at University Hospital or you can register to become an organ, eye and tissue donor.
For more than 40 years, University Health and UT Health San Antonio have partnered to provide lifesaving solid organ transplants for patients suffering from end-state organ failure. For more information visit the University Transplant Center website, or call 210-567-5777.