Everyone has an opinion about whether to wear a mask, receive the vaccine, or social distance during these times.  That’s understandable although most doctors and scientists agree that if our society adheres to these basic standards, we can help save lives.  Fortunately, it seems we all agree that keeping vulnerable populations safe is the right thing to do.  Anyone may be immunocompromised: grandparents, parents, college students, children, babies from all socio-economic backgrounds. During normal times, even a bout with the common cold or influenza can be devastating to someone who’s immunocompromised.

Drs. Dorry Segev and William Werbel recently co-authored an insightful article in the New York Times addressing the health risks.  They wrote,

“From the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the risk of getting infected with the coronavirus and developing severe disease from it was substantially higher for the millions of Americans with weakened immune systems because of treatment for cancer, autoimmune disorders, transplants and many other conditions.”

Their statement supports the initial findings made by Drs. Lilian Lam and Alin Gragossian, both heart transplant patients, who were attempting during the early days of the pandemic to discover the implications COVID would have on transplant patients.   In their joint article written in March 2020 as guest bloggers for the National Foundation for Transplants’ news center, the Second Chance, they made these initial observations:

“Knowledge about the virus and best practices to manage the disease are evolving, but little is known about COVID-19 in the context of transplant patients. While most healthy people develop mild symptoms or even remain infectious carriers without symptoms, it is clear that the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for severe illness with COVID-19.  The people most vulnerable to COVID-19 are the elderly and those that are immunocompromised.”

Now, nearly two years later, the verdict is in.  Medical, and scientific communities have learned transplant patients or those waiting to be transplanted are highly susceptible to contracting COVID, becoming seriously ill, require hospitalization, or may potentially succumb to the virus regardless of their age.

For individuals who do not have immune compromised system, the vaccines work in keeping them out of the hospital and from dying.  Drs. Segev and Werbel are both dedicated to the care of immunocompromised patients.  In their work, they made a frightening discovery.  One study they reviewed indicates transplant patients are at high risk and this is very concerning to Segev and Werbel.

“Vaccines promised a respite. But physicians like us who care for immunocompromised people quickly learned that our patients’ immune responses from vaccines were often weak. For example, in one study we showed that transplant recipients who were vaccinated with two doses of mRNA vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer had a higher risk of infection and much greater risk of hospitalization or dying compared with the vaccinated general population overall.“

The Food and Drug Administration has made an effort to increase the immunity of this group with the approval of a “booster shot”, an additional third vaccine dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.  However, variants are adding to the sense of urgency for the immunocompromised.  People are seeking fourth and fifth shots of the vaccine to keep the virus at bay.  It is unknown if this practice is safe.

For nearly two years, the transplant community has watched hopes and dreams for healing deferred:  Transplants delayed because candidates were infected by the virus; hospitals overwhelmed causing elective surgeries to be cancelled, including transplants; and special fundraising events to help those facing financial barriers delayed, in some instances indefinitely.  Our country experienced a record-breaking year for transplants in 2021 which may be partially due to the transplant surgeries delayed in 2020.

Protecting the vulnerable has always been high on our collective list of priorities no matter the threat.  That’s what we do as a nation, in our local communities, and homes.  We protect the vulnerable who are fighting to remain safe from the virus.  The experts say we can continue to help:  wear a mask, get vaccinated, and practice social distancing for ourself and those who are most at risk.  The life we can help save may be closer than we think.

Anyone can register to become an organ donor at RegisterMe.org.  Living donors and organ recipients can contact National Foundation for Transplants when they need help raising funds for out-of-pocket transplant-related expenses.  We’ exist to help transplant patients through their most difficult times get to their most wonderful times.  You can support their transplant journey with a financial gift.