Transplant recipients and people waiting for transplants can be some of the most vulnerable patients for contracting diseases and infections. Immunosuppressant drugs lower the risk of organ rejection. But they also can increase the risk of infection because they lessen the body’s immune response to help protect your new organ.
COVID-19, a disease caused by novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, has become a global pandemic. The disease has caused millions of illnesses and hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide.
Currently, there is no proven indication that transplant patients face an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. But they should take all possible steps to prevent the disease, as it can cause serious illness and other major complications.
If you are a transplant patient and are showing symptoms of COVID-19, you should contact your health care provider immediately.
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COVID-19 Risks for Transplant Patients
SARS-CoV-2 spreads from person-to-person through airborne droplets. When an infected person sneezes, coughs, or talks, they release airborne droplets. Those droplets then can land in the eyes, nose, or mouth of a person nearby – within 6 feet – possibly causing infection.
It also may spread if someone touches a surface that droplets landed on and then touches his or her eyes, mouth, or nose.
The main symptoms of COVID-19, a respiratory disease, include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Symptoms can be mild or severe and can present anywhere from two to 14 days after exposure.
COVID-19 can cause more serious medical conditions, such as pneumonia.
The groups most at risk for serious medical complications from COVID-19 include:
- Older adults
- People with underlying medical conditions (i.e., diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease)
- People who are immunocompromised, including those receiving cancer treatment
If someone on the transplant waiting list or someone who has received a transplant fits into those groups, COVID-19 prevention is critical.
No current evidence suggests that transplant patients are more at risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19. However, people with compromised immune systems, including transplant patients, are at greater risk for complications from other viruses. This includes influenza and Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
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How Can Transplant Patients Prevent COVID-19?
Transplant patients should follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for COVID-19 prevention. Those include:
- Avoid people who are sick. Maintain a safe distance – at least 6 feet – from anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19.
- Wash your hands regularly. Use soap and water and scrub your hands for 20 seconds before rinsing. If soap and water are unavailable, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Washing your hands is especially important after coughing or sneezing, before eating, after using the bathroom, or after touching communal surfaces.
- Clean and sanitize frequently touched surfaces. This includes countertops, tables, doorknobs, phones, and more.
- Avoid places with large crowds. Social distancing, the practice of avoiding close contact with large crowds, has been effective at reducing the spread of past pandemics.
- Follow the CDC’s recommendations for wearing a facemask. In general, you should wear a cloth face covering when you have to go out in public, for example to the grocery store or to pick up other necessities.
Are Organ Donors Tested for COVID-19?
Currently, the overall risk of COVID-19 spreading from person to person through transplantation is unknown.
In cases of deceased donors, screening the donor’s travel history is important to determine if the donor went to a location where COVID-19 is spreading.
The American Society of Transplantation (AST) says organs from deceased donors with a known or suspected case of COVID-19 should be deferred.
The AST recommends hospitals should treat other deceased donors on a case-by-case basis and carefully review each case to determine if the donor:
- Lived or traveled in a location where COVID-19 was spreading but showed no symptoms
- Had COVID-19 but recovered
Doctors should consider the risk to the recipient, the need for the organ, and the possibility of isolation for the recipient after transplant.
Living donors should not travel to areas where COVID-19 is widely spreading. They also should report any symptoms they may experience before a transplant procedure.
For more information, visit UPMC.com/Transplant.
About Transplant Services
Established in 1981, UPMC Transplant Services is one of the foremost organ transplant centers in the world. Our clinicians have performed more than 20,000 organ transplant procedures, including liver, kidney, pancreas, single and double lung, heart, and more. We are home to some of the world’s foremost transplant experts and have a long history of developing new antirejection therapies—so organ recipients can enjoy better health with fewer restrictions.