Plasma donations sought in effort against COVID-19

Stephanie Motter

While many survivors describe COVID-19 as an experience they’d never wish on anyone, they now have the ability to help other victims by donating their blood plasma.

If you’ve been following national news, you’ve likely read about or seen the emerging work supported by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat severely infected patients with blood plasma — more formally referred to as convalescent plasma therapy or CP therapy.

Immunology is an incredible science, one in which I won’t pretend to claim expertise. I can tell you at a very high level, though, why plasma therapy offers a possible treatment. With no vaccine for COVID-19, this century-old method of separating red blood cells from blood plasma proteins rich with antibodies seems to offer the most effective method to fight coronavirus. By giving a patient an antibody rich plasma infusion, we provide an immune system boost known as passive immunity to help them fight off the disease. CP therapy has been used in recent years to help patients during the SARS, H1N1 and MERS epidemics. The silver lining in the fight against COVID-19 is there’s growing science behind its effectiveness in aiding critically ill patients who need extra help to recover.

And now, we are using this incredible science in Western Colorado because St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction has joined in research supported by the Mayo Clinic through the Colorado COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project Consortium. This consortium is the first in the United States to collect and deliver COVID-19 positive plasma to critically ill patients.

A COVID-positive patient refers to someone who’s had coronavirus and recovered. Because St. Mary’s Regional Blood Center accepts COVID-positive plasma, it means people who’ve beaten the virus can give back by donating their plasma. While it won’t give critically ill recipients long-term immunity, it could give them the boost they need to fight through the disease and, hopefully, survive. St. Mary’s Regional Blood Center is in a unique position to supply this critical product to those who need it because the center already collects plasma from donors and is the primary blood supplier for Western Colorado and Eastern Utah. By adding to the screening process — which includes a swap test — for donors who’ve been symptom-free for at least 14 days, the center ensures the donor is no longer positive for the disease and safe to donate.

After donor eligibility is confirmed by medical screeners, a willing donor should call to schedule an appointment with St. Mary’s Regional Blood Center. “From the time the plasma is collected, we can deliver it to a patient in as little as two days,” said Jennifer Rhamy, director of St. Mary’s Regional Blood Center. “And unlike red blood cell donations, which are only good for 42 days, plasma is good for up to 12 months because it is kept frozen.”

This longer shelf-life means that even though Mesa County has not seen a peak in the pandemic, we can fight it a year from now with plasma donated today. “And if there’s an excess in donations and it’s not needed in Western Colorado, we can honor the need statewide. And if we have excess supply statewide, then we can help nationally,” Rhamy said. “It’s our stewardship mission: To maximize use of this precious resource by always looking for and filling the need.”

To date, St. Mary’s has referred 20 people for plasma donations, which has resulted in 35 treated COVID-19 patients statewide. This work has been financially viable because of the St. Mary’s Emergency Response Fund created to support the hospital’s response to devastating events like the one we face today.

If you want to give plasma to help advance this important work and have had a confirmed positive test for coronavirus, call (303) 813-5230 or send an email to convalescentplasma@sclhealth.org before setting up an appointment with the blood center because the donation must be first medically approved.

Rhamy, the team at the St. Mary’s Regional Blood Center and providers on the front lines remind me how fortunate we are to have a level 2 regional medical center in the community serving our region.

In addition to that, I’m constantly amazed by the giving spirit that embodies Western Coloradans. When there’s a need, our community steps up to meet it. Although the blood bank hasn’t been able to send out the bloodmobile for more than a month because of social distancing restrictions and they’ve only been able to accept donations from Mesa County residents, they have had enough blood to supply the 19 hospitals and residents they serve in Western Colorado and Eastern Utah. That’s a remarkable testament. The need is constant, though, and the center encourages donors to call (970) 298-2555 to schedule an appointment for a whole blood donation.

Let’s keep #DoingOurPartColorado in the fight against COVID-19. We’re all in this together, and I trust we’ll come out all the more resilient because of our giving spirit.