CORONAVIRUS

Dozens of area coronavirus patients undergo convalescent plasma therapy

Blood center sees first recovered patients become donors

Abigail Hanson (right) sets up a plasma donation machine as Kristine Fangman (left) of Center Point donates at the Missi
Abigail Hanson (right) sets up a plasma donation machine as Kristine Fangman (left) of Center Point donates at the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May 14, 2020. Fangman was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March and recovered in mid-April. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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As more Eastern Iowans recover from COVID-19, health care providers may be able to expand a treatment using their antibodies in a convalescent plasma therapy for patients still suffering from the virus.

A Linn County blood center recently has seen its first eligible plasma donors for this experimental therapy. Officials hope these will be among the first of many to come.

The Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center has been one of many blood centers collecting plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients for a national study spearheaded by the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., with the support of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The plasma, which contains antibodies equipped to fight off a virus such as the novel coronavirus, is shipped to community hospitals and transfused into patients who are fighting the disease. This therapy — used by scientists in the past to help patients during SARS, Ebola and other outbreaks — is being tried in patients to determine its effectiveness.

Officials said, as of the end of last week, that the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center had shipped more than 145 COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma orders to hospitals and is “current with all orders.”

Hospitals must qualify under the FDA licensing to receive and use convalescent plasma from blood centers for COVID-19 treatment.

Both hospitals in Cedar Rapids — Mercy Medical Center and UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids — are enrolled in the study.

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To date, Mercy has had “limited utilization of the therapy,” said Dr. Timothy Quinn, executive vice president of clinical operations.

UnityPoint Health has transfused about a dozen coronavirus-positive patients in the hospital with donated plasma.

“It is exciting and an honor to be able to participate and contribute to such a large study and be able to offer this as a treatment option to our patients locally,” said Dr. Dianna Edwards, hospitalist at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital.

Mercy Iowa City also is enrolled in the Mayo Clinic study, which officials called “a very promising therapy.” So far, they have administered the plasma therapy to 10 patients.

The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics has started its own clinic trial to determine the effectiveness of convalescent plasma therapy in treating COVID-19.

‘The way to give back’

Kristine Fangman is a Center Point resident who answered the blood center’s call for donation. After a short, mild bout with the virus, the 42-year-old said she hoped to help others who may be experiencing a worse bout of the illness than she did.

“You feel you don’t have control over anything or ways to help or anything,” she said. “So this is the way to give back and help because we are all in this together.”

Fangman and Cedar Rapids resident Emily Maple, another Iowan who has recovered from COVID-19, will donate their plasma to the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center for the third time later this week.

Donors only can donate their plasma a maximum of four times.

“I plan to do all four (donations), unless they don’t want me,” said Maple, 53. “Hopefully it helps somebody.”

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Maple is a physical therapist at Heritage Specialty Care, a Cedar Rapids-based long-term care facility that has experienced one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the state.

Maple said she worked with a Heritage resident two days before he was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. Ten days later, she began experiencing symptoms — chills, headaches, muscle cramps and a sore throat.

She tested positive for the virus on April 3.

“If I hadn’t known I was exposed, I probably would have blown it off as something else,” Maple said.

Fangman, an employee at NFI Industries who tested positive for COVID-19 on March 29, doesn’t know for sure how she was exposed to the virus. She had begun experiencing symptoms the previous week.

“The best I can describe it is it’s like having the flu, a sinus infection and bronchitis all at the same time,” she said.

Neither Fangman nor Maple have donated plasma before, which is a process that separates plasma, the liquid component of blood, and returns the rest of the blood components back to the donor.

Though experts say a vaccine may be several months or even years away, recent research has found some promise for the experimental treatment for the novel coronavirus.

An early safety reading, published this week on the website MedRxiv, has found that it is safe for health care providers to use this antibody-rich plasma for treatment of patients recovering from COVID-19.

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Of the 5,000 patients at hospitals across the country monitored for the study, fewer than 1 percent experienced a serious adverse event in the four hours after receiving the transfusion.

Though Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center officials have heard “very encouraging anecdotal feedback” from participating hospitals on convalescent plasma treatment, data from the national study will offer a clearer picture on patient impact.

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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