Tens of thousands of Iowans checked the box when they renewed their drivers’ licenses to become organ donors, but should they happen to die of COVID-19, will their organs still be used?
That depends, according to Heather Butterfield, spokeswoman for the Iowa Donor Network. Butterfield says, “Based on studies that have been conducted and with the approval of our medical directors, our current policy is that as long as the patient isn’t actively infectious with COVID-19, so typically that means they would be at least 21 days out from a diagnosis or symptoms, then they can be considered for organ donation.”
Nationwide, more than 100,000 people are waiting for organ transplants, while Iowa’s organ waiting list is nearly 600 names long. Organs are an exceptionally rare and valuable commodity and Butterfield says it would be a shame not to make use of those hearts, lungs, livers and kidneys that are healthy.
“Our number-one priority is always the safety of the recipients and we want to make sure that the organs we recover are safe to transplant,” Butterfield says, “which is why we have the policy in place that we do.” As yet, Iowa has not seen a dramatic upturn in the demand for organ donation during the pandemic, but there are fears about the situation worsening.
“We are wondering, we have seen stories of people who have had COVID and have had long-term effects that are now needing a lung transplant,” Butterfield says. “We don’t know yet what the long-term implication of that will be. Will that mean the transplant waiting list will go up specifically for those in need of lung transplants? That is certainly a possibility.”
During the first year of the pandemic, Butterfield says the Iowa Donor Network set a new record for organ donations. “We had 103 organ donors give 300 organs for transplant despite the fact that, yes, we had a lot of people pass away from COVID but people who have COVID at the time of their passing cannot be organ donors,” she says, “so even despite the increase in deaths due to COVID, we still had a record year for organ donation in 2020.”
With less than two months remaining in 2021, Butterfield says this year is on track to break last year’s record, which would be the fourth straight year for new organ donation records in Iowa.