Coronavirus: Hospital denies heart transplant to unvaccinated man

BOSTON — The family of a man in need of a heart transplant in Boston says a hospital has declined to put him on the transplant waitlist because he has not been vaccinated against COVID-19, making it the latest hospital system to require the shots.

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In a crowdfunding campaign, members of D.J. Ferguson’s family said he was hospitalized in November with a heart condition that caused his lungs to fill with blood and fluid. He underwent surgery before being transferred to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he received a temporary, emergency heart pump, according to the online fundraiser.

Ferguson’s family said officials at Brigham and Women’s Hospital told them that he was ineligible to receive a transplant because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We are literally in a corner right now,” family members said in the fundraising appeal. “This is extremely time sensitive. We’re being pressured to choose a shot that could kill him. This is not just a political issue. People need to have a choice!”

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D.J. Ferguson’s mother, Tracey Ferguson, told The Associated Press that her son has declined to get vaccinated against the coronavirus because he has atrial fibrillation, a heart condition that raises the possibility of adverse effects from the vaccine.

“D.J. is an informed patient,” Tracey Ferguson, a trained nurse, told the AP. “He wants to be assured by his doctors that his condition would not be worse or fatal with this COVID vaccine.”

In a statement posted online, officials with Brigham and Women’s Hospital said COVID-19 vaccinations are among those required for people to be placed on the hospital’s transplant waiting list, along with the seasonal influenza and hepatitis B vaccines. They noted that there are more than 100,000 people on waitlists for transplants nationwide and a shortage of available organs.

“Around half of people on waiting lists will not receive an organ within five years,” hospital officials said. “Given the shortage of available organs, we do everything we can to ensure that a patient who receives a transplanted organs has the greatest chance of survival.”

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To increase those chances, officials said they require that those wishing to waitlisted get vaccinations recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and agree to follow other healthy behaviors, among other conditions.

“Research has shown that transplant recipients are at a much higher risk of dying from COVID-19 when compared to non-transplant patients,” officials said, noting that the requirements are in alignment with recommendations from the American Society of Transplantation, American Society of Transplant Surgeons and International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation.

Other hospital systems have also mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for transplant recipients. Last year, Dan Weaver, spokesperson for Colorado’s UCHealth system, told The Washington Post that the mortality rate for transplant patients infected with COVID-19 ranges from 20% to more than 30%, much higher than the 1.6% fatality rate seen nationally from COVID-19.

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“An organ transplant is a unique surgery that leads to a lifetime of specialized management to ensure an organ is not rejected, which can lead to serious complications, the need for a subsequent transplant surgery, or even death,” he said in an email, according to the Post. “Physicians must consider the short- and long-term health risks for patients as they consider whether to recommend an organ transplant.”

More than 106,000 people are on the national transplant waiting list and 17 people die each day while waiting for a transplant, according to data from the federal Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

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As of Wednesday morning, nearly 76% of the U.S. population – 251.5 million people – has gotten at least one dose of any of the available COVID-19 vaccines, according to the CDC. More than 63% of Americans, or 210.8 million people, have been fully vaccinated, and over 40% of those who have been fully vaccinated have gotten booster shots, CDC data shows.

Since the start of the pandemic, officials have confirmed nearly 80 million COVID-19 infections and reported more than 876,000 deaths nationwide, according to numbers compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Over 363 million COVID-19 cases have been reported worldwide, resulting in more than 5.6 million deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.