For the 30 million Americans living with some form of kidney disease, the current COVID-19 pandemic brings a host of additional challenges not faced by the general population—like a greater risk of developing serious complications if they contract the virus. And for the 500,000 Americans with kidney failure who rely on dialysis treatments to stay alive, these challenges only multiply. Do they follow “stay-at-home” orders and skip their dialysis treatments, or do they risk exposure by going to a dialysis clinic where social distancing is difficult, if not impossible, to enforce? Either decision could have life-threatening consequences.
And what about the procedures to create and maintain the necessary access to their bloodstream that makes dialysis possible? In mid-March, the CMS deemed these procedures “non-essential,” leading to a host of cancelled appointments and operations. Even when CMS reversed its decision days later, the confusion that resulted from the chaos left many physicians, hospitals and patients unsure of which path to follow.
In the United States alone, nearly half a million people currently suffer from end-stage kidney disease and must undergo hemodialysis several times a week. For these patients, the vascular access site is quite literally their lifeline, as it provides direct access to their bloodstream for the life-saving treatments.
Yet due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, procedures to establish these vascular access sites have been deemed “non-essential” elective procedures by CMS and HHS, and nephrologists and vascular surgeons are finding themselves unable to secure operating room time.
Though we must all work together during this crisis to reduce the intense strain on our healthcare system, this decision could have devastating implications for patients with end-stage kidney disease — a group that is already highly vulnerable to potential complications of COVID-19. Limiting access to these procedures will increase reliance on riskier vascular access options that significantly increase patients’ chances of infection, hospitalization and even death. This will only add to the strain on resources as hospitals continue to deal with the outbreak.