As an international eye bank that provides corneas wordwide, the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank saw the effects of COVID-19 on its mission long before the disease seriously impacted the United States. As countries in Asia began to shut down, requests for transplant corneal shut down, too. Corneal transplant surgeries in Europe came next. By the time COVID-19 began its rapid spread in the U.S., RMLEB was nearly shut down completely for lack of demand.
Before the outbreak, the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank was recovering donated eye tissues from an average of seven eye donors per day. By mid-April, this had dropped to about seven donors per week. By May, a few donors a week was the norm. While all cornea transplants restore or preserve sight, most are considered elective procedures. As hospitals and surgery centers prepared for the full force of the COVID-19 outbreak, elective procedures were put on hold…and, as a result, so was much of the eye bank’s work. Still, the eye bank had to ensure ocular tissues were available in case of any emergency corneal transplants or immediate research needs, so it operated at a minimal level.
But in some ways, the eye bank's expenses and workload increased. Each death in a hospital within the eye bank's two-state service area must be screened for donation eligibility. The increase in deaths due to COVID-19 meant each had to be given a fair screening. RMLEB staff considers each potential donor against a set of medical standards. In the face of the pandemic, these standards have been continually updated as more data about the virus comes to light. The eye bank has worked tirelessly with the Eye Bank Association of America (EBAA) and the Food and Drug Administration to ensure eye donors are being screened safely and that the staff is taking appropriate precautions to ensure the safety of everyone. RMLEB committed to paying every employee and providing a comprehensive leave plan for those that might fall ill from the disease. For the first time in it's history, the eye bank financially ran into the red.
As elective procedures begin again, the eye bank is slowly ramping up operations. As it does so, it now faces supply shortages and increased expenses. Items such as gowns, gloves, and masks are scarcer due to the great demand the pandemic has caused world-wide. Back-orders are common and delays in delivery can be long. Costs are higher. Last week, the eye bank began rationing its supply of chemical surgical scrub, used to clean the technician’s hands and arms before putting on sterile surgical garb for the surgical recovery of donated tissues.
Nonetheless, with an eye toward fulfilling its mission and keeping everyone as safe as possible, the RMLEB team has rallied to make it work. It’s all very new and even more newness is in all our futures. As things begin slowly moving toward a new normal, the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank will rely on its team of talented staff, and the those in our communities who support them, for their dedication to the mission of fulfilling the wishes of eye donors to help another overcome blindness.