Organ transplant procedures in the United States were cut in half by the coronavirus pandemic, exacerbating the worldwide shortage of organs and the need for transplants, experts say.
By early April, the U.S. saw a 50% decline in deceased donor transplants from the month before, according to an analysis by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the Paris Transplant Group.
“Our findings point to the far-reaching and severe ripple effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on health care, including lifesaving organ transplants,” said study co-author Dr. Peter Reese, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Penn.
The analysis, published Monday in The Lancet, attributed the overall decline to a steep reduction in kidney transplants, but it also reported a substantial drop in heart, lung and liver transplants.
The number of recovered organs dropped from more than 110 a day in early March to fewer than 60 a day by April, investigators reported. During the same time period, the number of transplanted kidneys dropped from nearly 65 a day to about 35.
Transplant scientists found the drop intensified in France, where transplant procedures plunged by 91%. They surmise that may be a result of the French government and its nationally coordinated effort to manage the pandemic. The U.S. government, by contrast, has largely depended on state officials to impose restrictions.
“These international comparisons of transplant activity will be very important as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves,” said co-author Dr. Alexandre Loupy, a nephrologist at the Department of Nephrology and Kidney Transplantation at Necker Hospital in Paris and head of the Paris Transplant Group.
“Some transplant systems may develop best practices to support organ procurement and transplant that can be shared across borders,” he said.
Dr. Stephen Pastan, medical director of the kidney transplant program at Emory University of School of Medicine, said programs may be doing fewer transplants for two reasons: patient safety and hospital resources.
Although donors are screened, hospitals have dedicated intensive care units and entire floors to coronavirus patients, leaving little room for patients recovering from a transplant.
“Hospitals are flooded with these highly infectious patients with people walking around the hospitals and cafeterias,” Pastan said. Doctors at first weren’t sure how they could ensure the safety of transplant patients.
While some programs have reduced the number of transplants, he said others have temporarily halted procedures altogether to focus on the pandemic.
In the U.S., about 40,000 patients receive an organ transplant each year, and about 120,000 patients remain on the waiting list, according to the analysis. About 7,600 patients die every year while waiting for an organ transplant.
“I think programs are anxious to get back to transplanting full steam ahead as soon as it’s safe to do so,” Pastan said.