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Rantz: UW Medicine patient forced into unwanted COVID vaccine to get his liver transplant

Derek Kovick in a hospital for a prior surgery and a photo of the Kovic family. (Photo: Derek Kovic)

Patients at UW Medicine are being told they must get a COVID vaccine before going through a life-saving organ transplant. One patient says he doesn’t want it, effectively forcing him to decide if he’ll forgo a liver transplant to address his vaccine concerns.

Derek Kovick is a 41-year-old father of two. He suffers from Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a rare and serious liver disease that damages the bile ducts. Kovick is waiting on his third liver transplant and is concerned with the side effects of the COVID vaccine.

But Kovick’s concerns don’t matter. He’s being forced to either get the vaccine or skip the liver transplant for now.

Holding a liver hostage

A fever can be serious for Kovick. If he gets a fever over 100.4, he says doctors tell him to go to an emergency room immediately. In fact, at a vacation just two weeks ago, a high fever from his PSC sent him to the ER.

He’s concerned a high fever will be a side effect of the COVID vaccine, and he doesn’t want to risk it. He’s not anti-vaccine and says he would get one after his procedure. But he does not want the shots before his transplant.

Kovick may not have a choice.

“I was notified earlier this week that now [UW’s] Infectious Disease has changed the rules in the middle of the game, stating that all transplant patients who are waiting for any organ will need to have a vaccine. They didn’t give us the date but said that you need to be doing it ASAP,” Kovick told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

The COVID vaccine requirement

Kovick shared screenshots of emails between him and his nurse.

“Infectious disease says you should move forward with the Covid Vaccine ASAP. It would not be a problem for transplant if you had a recent vaccination,” the nurse told Kovick.

He asked a follow-up question for clarification. He got it: The vaccine is a mandate.

“Transplant and Infectious disease require Covid vaccination for transplant. Therefore you need to be working on getting the Covid vaccinations locally,” she said.

Kovick says if he declines the vaccine, it means he’d be on the transplant list as a Status 7.

“If a liver became available for me and I was on ‘Status 7,’ they would just go bump down the next guy because I don’t fit the criteria for being compliant,” he explained.

Kovick now finds himself in a tough position.

“If they want to make it mandatory after I receive a transplant, that’s a whole different ballgame,” he said. “But while I’m on the list, I just feel like there’s too much, there’s too much risk for me.”

UW Medicine denies policy, then backtracks

UW Medicine initially denied the requirement existed.

When I first reached out to UW Medicine, a spokesperson said they merely “recommend that all solid-organ transplant candidates be vaccinated against COVID-19.” But that message conflicts with the nurse’s two emails to Kovick.

I asked the spokesperson to double-check the policy and connect with the department. Perhaps the nurse got it wrong. The spokesperson’s answer then changed slightly.

“I can’t speak to specific patient situations, but do know that the vaccine is recommended and each healthcare provider works with their particular patient to determine the best plan for them,” she explained via email.

Again I pushed for a more specific answer on whether or not the hospital mandated a vaccine for organ transplant patients. I then emailed Lisa Brandenburg, President of UW Medicine Hospitals & Clinics. The spokesperson responded on her behalf, offering the actual policies.

It is, in fact, a mandate — if the doctor says so.

“Our physicians make a determination regarding vaccine recommendations and requirements, including COVID-19 vaccination, based on the risk factors of the individual patient and degree of immunosuppression they will experience,” she said. “The suppression of their immune system puts them at increased risk for infections, including an increased risk for hospitalization and severe complications due to COVID-19. We also know that patients after solid organ transplant do not respond as well to the COVID-19 vaccine due to the ongoing post-transplant immunosuppression, which is why the CDC now recommends that they receive a third dose of COVID-19 vaccine.”

‘If you want to live, you’re backed into a corner’

Kovick tells me he has no real options anymore. Is this the hill he will die on? Well, it could literally be if he chose to.

“My hands are tied. I mean, really, if you want to live, you’re backed into a corner where you’re really at their mercy now, and I just feel like that’s what’s happening around the world,” Kovick explained. “It’s one thing if my employer were to do that. We find different jobs. But when it comes to your health, life or death, then it’s kind of a game-changer.”

He’s not deciding by himself. There’s a lot on the line.

“I’m married. I have a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old. And a career and [I’m] only 41 years old. I feel like I got a like a lot of life left to live, and so to make a decision, it’s just kind of like, wow. Really? Like I really have to go there?”

Some thoughts

I’ve maintained the same position on vaccines for months. I believe that patients should get the vaccine in consultation with their doctor if they want it. That’s what I did.

As much as I trust the doctors to recommend the right treatment as they see it, Kovick gets to make up his mind. To deny him a new liver is obscene. I hope the doctor backs off the requirement in this situation.

Doctors don’t deny drug addicts treatment for vein damage when the patient refuses to enter a detox program, do they? They provide education and try to convince the patient of what’s best for them. But ultimately, the doctor treats what’s necessary for survival.

That doctors could effectively force Kovick into something he does not want, despite knowing the risks, should worry everyone — even if you think getting the vaccine is a no-brainer. If they were to follow through with their mandate, they’d be taking advantage of him. It’s effectively withholding a liver and a longer life unless they do what they want him to.

That’s not freedom, nor is it body autonomy. It’s exploitative: It takes advantage of his illness. And if doctors can do that to a patient in desperate need of a liver, what do you think they could do to those of us with less serious medical issues?

Did you like this opinion piece? Then listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz  on  Twitter,  Instagram, and Parler, and like me on Facebook

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