The stay at home order in response to the coronavirus pandemic has had an unexpected silver lining; reduced traffic has meant that motor vehicle fatalities have halved. However, according to UNOS, so too have organ donations.
Fatal traffic accidents account for 33% of organ donations, so the correlation between the drop in organ donation and the stay at home order is undeniable. The second and third biggest causes of organ donation are strokes and heart attacks. Strokes make up 27% of organ donations, and heart attacks make up 20%. While people are still having strokes and heart attacks at the same rate, they are not seeking medical attention for their life-threatening symptoms, scared of contracting Covid-19 by visiting the ER. In order for organs to be viable for donation, the brain dead or deceased patient must be instantly put on a ventilator to ensure blood continues to flow to their organs, according to Brad Nakase who is a California lawyer for car accident victims. As more people are dying from a heart attack or stroke in their homes, rather than hospitals, they are unable to donate their organs.
The UNOS data has shown concerning facts about the period between the 8th of March and 11th of April compared to last year.
- Nationwide, car accident fatalities who are organ donors were down 23% compared to the same period in 2019.
- Fatalities who are organ donors from other kinds of accidents were down 20% compared to the same period in 2019.
- Drownings are down 80% compared to the same period in 2019.
Spring and summer account for the most organ donations compared to other seasons due to the number of people out and about enjoying the nice weather. Hunting accidents, motorcycle accidents and beach accidents are almost non-existent, as are spring break accidents because of the cancellation of spring break. In general, the emergency room has been a lot quieter since the stay at home order. The number of accidents from motor vehicles or drinking has declined significantly, and people are hesitant to visit the hospital for anything less than serious problems. This does mean that people are dying unnecessarily and that their organs are unable to be donated.
On the other side of the coin, though, many hospitals are too busy and ill-equipped to handle organ transplants amongst the Covid-19 pandemic. In preparation for the first waves of the pandemic, most hospitals canceled surgeries to try and retain as much PPE and free up as many ventilators as possible. Organ donations require a ventilator for the organ donor, sometimes for multiple days before the organ harvesting. Additionally, every recipient of the organs will require a ventilator during surgery. With a severe lack of free ventilators already, many hospitals have decided that they cannot justify tying up a ventilator when it is desperately needed to save the lives of those infected with coronavirus. Add to that a reduced staff roster due to illness and Covid-19 related deaths and many hospitals cannot manage the delicate coordination required for an organ transplant.
Another barrier to hospitals providing organ transplants is the lack of testing kits to test potential organ donors for Covid-19. Many hospitals barely have the resources to test hospital admissions and their staff, let alone organ donors. Many coronavirus fatalities were organ donors, but it was decided that organs from infected donors could not be used due to the risk of passing Covid-19 onto the transplant recipient. Before and after an organ transplant, the recipient will have a weakened immune system, and therefore will be at risk of contracting and dying from coronavirus.
Currently, the organ donation pipeline is in dire straits, and it looks like those on the waiting list face delays in receiving the organs they desperately need.