Some Hospitals Are Preventing Unvaccinated Patients from Getting Organ Transplants—Here’s What to Know

Human lungs, cut-away computer artwork.

Experts explain the thinking behind this new policy.

A growing number of hospitals across the country are refusing to do organ transplants for patients who are unvaccinated against COVID-19. The Cleveland Clinic is one of the latest to announce this policy change.

A publicist for the Clinic shared a statement with Health that said, “the vaccination is to prevent severe illness or death from COVID-19. To date, we have not removed anyone from the transplant waiting list because they were not vaccinated.” A Colorado woman also made headlines last week after revealing that she was denied a kidney transplant from UCHealth for being unvaccinated. (She said at the time that she chose not to get the vaccine for religious reasons.)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently notes that people who have had a solid organ transplant are at a higher risk for developing severe COVID-19. The CDC also warns that people who are in an immunocompromised state are more likely to get severely ill from the virus, including people who take immune-weakening medications—and transplant recipients need to take immunosuppressive medications so that their bodies don’t reject the new organ, William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Health.

Infectious disease experts say the policy is fair. “To protect the recipient, you would certainly want them to be vaccinated,” Dr. Schaffner says. “The vaccine would reduce the risk they will acquire an infection, threaten their life, and make the whole organ transplant effort futile.”

It’s important that transplant patients work with physicians to get the COVID-19 vaccine the recommended amount of time before their surgery, says Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. “Being on immunosuppressive therapy can reduce the immune response after the vaccine,” he tells Health. Basically, getting the COVID-19 vaccine while you’re taking immunosuppressive medication in the time leading up to a transplant may lessen your body’s ability to build up antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from the vaccine.

Dr. Watkins also points out that in general, organ transplant recipients are more likely to stay healthy during a pandemic if they’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. “Organs are a very precious resource that must be allocated in the most fair and equitable way,” he says. “If someone chooses to not get vaccinated, they are potentially going to do less well than someone who got the vaccine.”

Overall, Dr. Schaffner says, “these policies sure do make a whole lot of sense.”


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