Another coronavirus victim? Organ transplants decrease during pandemic

The amount of people who are dying and becoming organ donors has dropped significantly as people stay home.

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Angie Cassman and Angel Rivera, organ transplant coordinators of Children’s Memorial Hospital.

The number of transplants began to slide in mid-March as the coronavirus erupted in the Chicago area and the stay-at-home order was imposed.

Sun-Times file

Fewer organ transplants are taking place in the Chicago area and across the state due, in part, to a drop in fatal car crashes and other forms of sudden death that normally yield lifesaving organs.

“People are staying home and not dying in car and work-related accidents,” said Kevin Cmunt, president of Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network, which oversees organ donations in northern Illinois and Northwest Indiana. 

The number of transplants began to slide in mid-March and are stark in comparison to the number of transplant surgeries from the same time period last year.

Between March 15 and May 12 in 2019 there were 225 transplant surgeries. There were 146 surgeries during the same timeframe this year, a decrease of 35%.

Organs were recovered from 76 deceased donors during that period last year. This year organs were recovered from 49 deceased donors, a decrease of 36%. On average, about three organs can be recovered from a single donor.

Organs Transplanted
Organs Transplanted March 15 - May 12, 2019 March 15 - May 12, 2020
Heart 21 15
Lungs 36 15
Liver 56 38
Pancreas 6 6
Kidneys 106 72
Total 225 146
The number of organs transplanted by Gift of Hope between March 15 and May 12 in 2019 and 2020.
Gift of Hope

When sudden tragedies occur, many victims end up on life support in intensive care units, triggering a notification from the hospital to Gift of Hope staffers who initiate conversations with family members about organ donation.

Those notifications are down considerably. Between March 15 and May 12 of last year there were 1,083 notifications; this year, there were 743, a 31% decrease.

Dr. Joseph Leventhal, the head of Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s transplant program, said the number of ICU patients the hospital normally sees in April was down about 50% if you don’t count patients battling COVID-19,

Similar downward trends are being seen at hospitals and ICUs across the state, according to the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, a trade group that represents more than 200 hospitals.

“Where are these people? Were they somehow prevented from having heart attacks or strokes? Or are they dying at home?” Cmunt asked. 

He suspects they are dying at home, possibly out of fear that venturing to a hospital would expose them and loved ones to the coronavirus.

It’s a suspicion he won’t be able to confirm anytime soon. It will take several months for state health departments in Illinois and Indiana to roundup the numbers, Cmunt said.

“These people who aren’t getting organs, they’re victims of COVID-19, too,” Cmunt said.

Notifications from hospitals to Gift of Hope
Mechanism of Injury March 15 - May 12, 2019 March 15 - May 12, 2020
Heart Attack 417 222
Stroke 182 140
Drug Intoxication 51 47
Drowning 2 1
Asphyxiation 13 8
Blunt Injury 74 50
GSW 15 15
Stabbing 1 0
Seizure 8 5
Other 38 46
Natural Causes 282 209
Total Referrals 1083 743
Notifications from hospitals to Gift of Hope when a patient is on life support in the ICU by injury between March 15 and May 12 in 2019 ad 2020.
Gift of Hope

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