Gift of Life Michigan says better testing now used since double lung transplant recipient COVID-19 case

Bruce Nicely says they have learned a lot about the novel coronavirus since last October when University of Michigan Hospital doctors discovered a Michigan woman had been infected by COVID-19 from her double lung transplant.

"It clearly is tragic and unfortunate, our hearts go out to the recipient's family," he said. 

Nicely is the chief clinical officer for Gift of Life Michigan, which helps facilitate organ transplants.

"It is highly likely the virus was sort of lurking deeply into the respiratory system, not so much at that point in time in the in upper respiratory track is everyone's best guess as to how it went undetected," he said.

Nicely says the donor was tested with a nasal swab rather than getting a specimen from deep in the lungs. Early on in the pandemic, doctors were worried about transmission during deep lung testing since COVID-19 is spread through infected droplets.

The donor's nasal swab test came back negative. But three days after the transplant, the recipient began showing COVID-19 symptoms. 

The patient's nasal swab test also came back negative, but doctors tested the fluid in her lungs, and the donor's fluid, which was retrieved before the transplant  - both came back positive for COVID-19.

"There have been thousands of transplants since then, there were thousands before the pandemic. To everyone's knowledge this is the only positive case of COVID-19 through transplantation," he said.

In fact, Nicely says Gift of Life now partners with a lab that can safely obtain a sample from the lungs for testing without risk of transmission.

Unfortunately, it is too late for the woman, who died two months after her double lung transplant..Nicely says this first and only case shouldn't discourage donors from giving the gift of life in the future.

"For the recipients, if that is the pathway the healthcare team has recommended, don't be deterred from this," he said. "Ask questions do your homework."