116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
As health care providers were finding some medicines ineffective in treating COVID-19, they turned to a method long used in treating viruses: convalescent plasma.
'In the early days of the pandemic, blood providers everywhere in the U.S. were collecting plasma from people who had a COVID-19 infection and recovered because the plasma actually contains antibodies to COVID itself,” said Kirby Winn, spokesperson for the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center.
Plasma is the liquid portion of your blood that contains antibodies that fight off infections.
Donating plasma is different from donating blood. When you donate whole blood, it goes directly into a collection bag. When you donate plasma, the blood that's drawn from your arm goes into a machine that separates the different parts of your blood. The plasma is collected and the unused parts, including your red blood cells, are put back in your vein.
Historically, transfusions of convalescent plasma have been used to boost severely ill patients' ability to fight infections when no treatments or vaccines are available. This kind of treatment has been used successfully in the past with similar kinds of viruses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration helped establish protocols for using the plasma in March, and many local blood banks began collecting convalescent plasma in April.
As the number of COVID-19 infections rose in Iowa and elsewhere, the need for convalescent plasma increased but so did the number of recovered patients who could potentially donate their plasma.
'We have had weeks where we did something like 30 to 40 donation procedures in the entire week, and a couple of weeks ago, that was more than 150 because more and more people are aware of the opportunity, but also there's more people who are eligible for it,” Winn said.
At the DeGowin Blood Center, which serves University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital patients, Dr. Mike Knudson has been studying the efficacy of using convalescent plasma as a treatment for severely ill COVID-19 patients.
'We didn't know for sure if it would work or not. And I'll be blunt, we're still not 100 percent sure that it's working and who is most likely to benefit,” said Knudson, the center's medical director. 'What I'm advocating at UIHC is to test the patient at the time you're thinking about the plasma to make sure their antibody levels are negative, and if they're negative, transfuse them so that you can try to make them positive.”
Knudson has been able to show that the treatment is successful if you use donors who have high levels of COVID-19 antibodies. Of the 180 subjects his center has screened, only about 20 percent have had high enough levels to donate convalescent plasma.
'While it's been observed that people who've been more seriously ill have higher levels of antibodies, to me, just screen everybody, and even if somebody was asymptomatic, if they had high antibody levels, we still want them to come in,” Knudson said. 'So I wouldn't necessarily exclude them up front just because they weren't very sick.”
At the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center, which supports hospitals in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Maquoketa and elsewhere in Eastern Iowa, every convalescent plasma donation is tested to make sure antibodies are present.
While it depends on the individual how long after their initial infection the antibodies will still be present, the center also wants to ensure donors are fully recovered before they come in to donate plasma, asking donors to wait at least 28 days after their infection.
'They'll still have the antibodies present even though they're feeling better, but also when they come to do the donation, we don't want that donor to be contagious and potentially expose other donors or staff to COVID,” Winn said.
Donating plasma take longer than donating whole blood - typically about an hour and 15 minutes. Together with the time to check in and be evaluated, the entire process takes about two hours.
At the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center, donors must show a positive COVID-19 test result, be recovered for at least 28 days and be at least 17 years old. A self-referral form can be filled out at bloodcenter.org, and a staffer will follow up with you to schedule an appointment.
Two regional blood center locations are available in Cedar Rapids, at Lindale Crossing on First Avenue NE and on Williams Boulevard SW. Staff also will take the plasma collection equipment to mobile blood drives if a plasma donor is scheduled.
The Red Cross is collecting convalescent plasma at its donation centers. Donors must present a verified positive diagnosis of COVID-19 but be fully recovered and symptom-free, be in good health, at least 17 years old and weigh at least 110 pounds. Eligible individuals can donate convalescent plasma every seven days or up to eight times over three months. Learn more at redcrossblood.org.
'Right now, I would say our inventory for convalescent plasma is critical,” said Laura McGuire, spokesperson for the Red Cross.
BioLife Plasma Services is collecting convalescent plasma donations at its Cedar Rapids centers. Donors must make an appointment, as the center is limiting the number of people in the office at one time. Donors also must show a positive COVID-19 test from within the past 90 days. BioLife and its parent company, Takeda, are part of the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance, which is developing a potential treatment option for people at risk for serious complications from COVID-19.
The local convalescent plasma programs plan to continue their collections until there is no longer a need for it.
'As long as it's needed at hospitals,” Winn said. 'And hospitals in the region that we serve are using this on a continual basis. They're still seeing lots of COVID patients, and this is a treatment option that we're glad to continue to make available.
'If there's a great reduction in COVID-19 cases as vaccinations roll out and circumstances change, we'll adjust to that.”
AMERICAN RED CROSS
Phone: 1- (800)-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767)
DEGOWIN BLOOD CENTER
Phone: (319) 356-2058
MISSISSIPPI VALLEY REGIONAL BLOOD CENTER
Phone: (833) 610-1025