Unvaccinated Man Taken Off Transplant List Reignites Patient Debate

A Boston man who is not eligible for a heart transplant because he refuses to get vaccinated against COVID-19 has sparked a debate over why health care systems across the U.S. have implemented such policies.

According to his family, DJ Ferguson, 31, is unable to receive a transplant at Brigham and Women's Hospital due to a hospital policy that requires transplant patients to be vaccinated, CBS Boston reported.

"My son has gone to the edge of death to stick to his guns and he's been pushed to the limit," DJ's father, David Ferguson, told the news outlet. "Because he won't get the shot, they took him off the list (for) a heart transplant."

David Ferguson added that he strongly disagrees with the hospital's position and is now "aggressively pursuing all options," including possibly transferring his son to a different hospital in the area, despite his weakened state.

Brigham and Women's Hospital explained in a statement to Newsweek that while they could not comment on Ferguson's specific case, their vaccine policies are put in place to ensure that patients who receive a transplant have the best possible chance of survival.

"Given the shortage of available organs, we do everything we can to ensure that a patient who receives a transplanted organ has the greatest chance of survival," the hospital said.

"Our Mass General Brigham healthcare system requires several CDC-recommended vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine, and lifestyle behaviors for transplant candidates to create both the best chance for a successful operation and to optimize the patient's survival after transplantation, given that their immune system is drastically suppressed," it added.

Dr. Arthur Caplan, head of Medical Ethics at NYU's Grossman School of Medicine also told Newsweek on Tuesday that vaccination against any disease has long been recommended to patients in need of transplant surgery, as the operation makes individuals immunosuppressed and at high risk of infection.

"It is recommended that all vaccines be tried in people who are eligible for transplant – flu vaccine, measles, tetanus, etc. The idea behind that is trying to boost your immunity if possible before you get completely immunosuppressed as a result of a transplant," said Caplan, who also specializes in transplant research.

"Any infection after a transplant could potentially kill you, from athletes foot to COVID-19. I am firmly behind the decision to say that all patients should be vaccinated in order to receive a transplant."

Transplant patients are at such high risk of infection that even "relatives of patients should be vaccinated too," as they pose a high risk of transmitting the disease, he added.

COVID-19 Vaccine and Transplants
A Boston man who was recently denied a heart transplant because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19 has sparked a debate over hospital policies. Here, a healthcare worker at the Jackson Health Systems receives a Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine on December 15, 2020 in Miami. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Caplan also noted that the issue should not be viewed as a means of discriminating against unvaccinated populations, but rather, as a way to ensure that individuals who require a transplant are receiving the best possible care.

"It has to do with trying to make sure that very scarce hearts are used in a way that maximizes the chance that recipients live. The political ideology that you are discriminating is getting confused with basic biology," he said.

Research has suggested that transplant patients who become sick with the coronavirus have a 20 to 30 percent chance of dying, a rate that is considerably higher than the rest of the population, which sits at 1.6 percent, The Guardian reported.

A study published last summer by researchers at the University of California San Diego also found that organ transplant recipients who are vaccinated before receiving surgery were 80 percent less likely to become infected with COVID-19, as compared to their unvaccinated counterparts.

Update 1/25/22 4:27 PM ET: This story has been updated with a statement from Brigham and Women's Hospital.