Newswise — LOS ANGELES (Dec. 17, 2020) -- In a year rocked by the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, the Cedars-Sinai Comprehensive Transplant Center is on track to match or break records.

Cedars-Sinai surgeons performed 64 transplants in October, the second-highest number of transplants ever performed in a single month at Cedars-Sinai ­– only a single transplant shy of the highest transplant volume month on record, March 2019. And, as of the end of November, Smidt Heart Institute surgeons have already performed more heart transplants in 2020 than they did in all of 2019.

"The fact that we've been able to maintain our transplant volumes and continue to save lives is truly a testament to our team's ability to pivot quickly," said Andrew S. Klein, MD, the Esther and Mark Schulman Chair in Surgery and Transplantation Medicine and co-director of the Comprehensive Transplant Center.

Klein said transplant volumes fell in April in response to the rapidly growing pandemic, but rebounded quickly in May after COVID-19 screenings and other precautions were put in place. That month, Cedars-Sinai performed 57 transplants, an astounding 18 of which were heart transplants – nearly double the 2019 monthly average.

By the end of November, the transplant team at Cedars-Sinai performed a total of 496 organ transplants. As the end of the year approaches, that number continues to inch closer to 2019's record-breaking total of 529 transplants.

Joanna Chikwe, MD, chair of the Department of Cardiac Surgery at the Smidt Heart Institute, says that the team at Cedars-Sinai worked intentionally to preserve capacity in the intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients, which meant the hospital never had to stop or delay cardiac surgeries, including transplants, to accommodate those patients.

"Cedars-Sinai was at the forefront of leading national best practices and creating guidelines for cardiac care during the COVID-19 pandemic," Chikwe said. "As a high-volume center with tremendous experience, we could easily operate under the new national recommended guidelines and best practices outlined by our institution."

Irene Kim, MD, co-director of the Comprehensive Transplant Center, said vital to the team's success has been their ability to move many of their programs to a virtual format.

"In about a week, the team was able to transition many of our appointments to virtual or telephone visits," Kim said. "We still perform several critical services in person, with extra precautions to protect our patients and staff. But appointments like transplant evaluations and disease management programs have transitioned seamlessly to a virtual format."

Clinic visits went from 100% face-to-face in January and February to more than 60% virtual or over the phone in April and May. In-person visits slowly increased again in the following months, and now about half of visits are face-to-face and the other half are performed remotely. With Los Angeles County Health Department officials predicting a coming increase in COVID-19 cases due to Thanksgiving travel and get-togethers, in-person visits may yet again decrease. The transplant team says they're ready.

"At the transplant center, we develop close relationships with our patients as we follow them through their transplant journey," Kim said. "Right now, we really miss seeing a lot of them in person, but we're using the tools that we have to make sure everyone stays safe, so we can continue to save lives."