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Here's how COVID is impacting organ donations and transplants

"It's about gathering information and making sure the organs are safe to transplant into the recipients."

MOLINE, Ill. — When the world came to a standstill nearly one year ago Heather Butterfield with the Iowa Donor Network wasn’t sure how the organization would continue to connect organ donors to those in desperate need.

“The donations were coming to a full stop almost in many areas,” says Butterfield, “There was a lot of fear of what is going to happen to us.”

Like most industries, the work came with a learning curve. For nearly all of 2020 anyone who was COVID-19 positive at their time of death couldn’t donate their organs. It was near the very end of 2020 that research concluded that there was a gray area for donating organs if you’re still considered COVID positive.

“The last thing we wanted to do is recover organs from someone who had COVID and then give it to the recipient. That of course was the biggest concern. Now we know that after 21 days those organs no longer pose a risk to the recipient,” Butterfield said.

The research concluded that it took at least 21 days for the virus to longer be live inside someone, and potentially infect the recipient of an organ.

That magic number of 21 days helped keep organ donations in motion, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. 

Butterfield says COVID is affecting the industry in other ways as well.

“As COVID ramps up again, and hospitals pull back again on elective procedures, it may mean that those people who need an organ may have to wait longer for the procedure,” Butterfield said.

If a transplant isn’t considered urgent, those waiting can have a match, and still have to wait for their procedures. 

Butterfield says it’s due to elective surgeries being pulled back.

“We haven’t had t walk away from any cases yet because of staffing issues at hospital or here at the Iowa Donor Network, but of course that is a concern as we go forward,” Butterfield said.

In addition to that COVID has caused more people to need an organ transplant. Because of the side effects of COVID often affecting the lungs, it’s causing impacts on some that are irreversible.

“We’re seeing some people get COVID so badly that it damages their lungs so badly,” Butterfield said. “They’re now having to go on the transplant list because now they need a new set of lungs.”

There are currently 583 Iowans on the list for an organ donation. 

You can sign up to be an organ donor on their website here.

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