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Still learning COVID-19 toll

Jennifer Leung, in front of a photo of

Jennifer Leung, in front of a photo of her mother Wai Fong Lueng, of Wantagh, who died of COVID-19 after getting a kidney transplant. Credit: Reece T. Williams

It is hard to overstate the peril for people who need organ transplants and await the saving gift of lungs, hearts, or livers. But that peril has been heightened thanks to the pandemic.

In a new investigation, Newsday reporter Thomas Maier detailed a little-noted weekslong crisis that hit the region last year when transplant programs in New York largely shut down. As hospitals were overwhelmed by COVID-19, the transplant interruption wrought dire consequences that are difficult to measure but clearly serious.

"Statewide, 590 patients died last year while waiting for transplants compared with 455 in 2019 — a 30% increase — according to state records," the investigation found.

It should come as no surprise that transplants, complex modern medical miracles, were affected by the chaos in health facilities here and around the country. Hospitals diverted staff and resources to care for people with COVID. Some healthy organ donors were turned away to protect against infection. Even those who could get new organs were prescribed drugs that could suppress the body’s ability to fight infections, endangering them further. It was a separate triumph that some hospitals were able to pull off some transplants and bounce back relatively quickly even under this continued threat.

The consequences haven’t ended: Transplant recipients still live carefully since vaccinations may not offer the same protections enjoyed by healthier neighbors.

The transplant crisis is just one heart-wrenching example of the indirect and often uncounted impact of the pandemic, fallout that needs to be reckoned with along with the toll of COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. That fallout includes ways health care providers were forced to scramble and improvise during the height of the crisis. Hospitals "reported that staffing shortages have affected patient care, and that exhaustion and trauma have taken a toll on staff’s mental health," according to a spring report from the inspector general’s office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Early in the pandemic in New York, hospitals weren’t doing crucial elective procedures. Even afterward, some prospective patients here and elsewhere were too concerned about the virus to show up. That has sometimes meant fewer mammograms and colonoscopies, delayed preventative and urgent care for heart attacks and strokes, and fewer emergency department visits, deferrals whose consequences we may not see for months or years.

Add in the impact of isolation in locked-down nursing homes, plus the economic impact of monthslong closures. When society on so many levels switches to survival mode, impacts linger. That's true here, and especially in places where COVID circulates at high levels.

That COVID is a danger beyond direct infection shows the mistake in thinking that those who are concerned can simply wear a mask while everyone else lives their life. All the more reason to hasten vaccinations and reduce the number of people in whom COVID can spread, and the number of enduring consequences.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.