By James Nitzkorski, MD, FACS
The use of blood plasma to treat ill patients has been around for more than a century, dating back to the 1890s to combat a variety of diseases from measles, polio, SARS, MERS, Ebola and the H1N1 flu.
With the development of a vaccine against COVID-19 months, if not a year, away, medical institutions throughout the country have started trials to determine if plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients, when given to those that are severely ill, might be effective in decreasing the severity or duration of the disease. While it is not known whether this treatment will be effective, preliminary reports from China have suggested improved results may be achieved from this therapy.
To increase access to this treatment option, Nuvance Health opened convalescent plasma donation centers at Vassar Brothers Medical Center, Danbury Hospital and Norwalk Hospital.
Here are answers to some common questions about blood plasma therapy.
What is plasma therapy?
Plasma is a yellowish liquid component of blood that contains antibodies. Antibodies can fight infection. When someone recovers from a COVID-19 infection, they do so, in part, because the antibodies can “neutralize” the virus and make someone better.
That plasma is taken from a donor, prepared and then given to a critically-ill, COVID-19 patient. The process is very similar to a blood transfusion.
Does plasma therapy work?
This therapy has been successfully used in the past for other viral diseases, so we are hopeful this treatment for COVID-19 will yield good results. It is too early to know what impact this will have on COVID-19 disease progression.
Who can donate?
The criteria for donation have been set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and continues to evolve. Currently, the criteria for donation, in addition to passing the basic transfusion donation screening questions, are as follows:
- COVID-19 confirmation with either positive swab OR antibody test
- 14-day, symptom-free interval with a repeat negative swab
- 28-day, symptom free interval with NO need for repeat swab
At this time, we are prioritizing donors who have had a positive COVID-19 test, and who have not had symptoms for 28 days.
Where can I donate?
Nuvance Health: If you are close to Poughkeepsie, Danbury, or Norwalk and would like to donate at one of our hospital sites, please register at the following website: www.nuvancehealth.org/plasmadonorregistration. A staff member will contact you. Priority is being given to contact donors getting closer to the 28-day, symptom-free interval.
Other plasma donation options include:
I am pretty sure I had COVID-19, but I couldn’t get a test. Can I still donate?
Only if you have an antibody test that proves infection. Currently, our plasma program is not able to arrange antibody testing for possible donors. If you had a positive antibody test you are welcome to register on our website as having a “positive COVID test”
I’ve registered and filled out the Nuvance Health questionnaire. I still haven’t heard back.
We are prioritizing calls to possible donors who have had a positive test and who are approaching the 28-day, symptom free window.
How often can I donate?
Nuvance donors may be able to donate at least weekly. Ongoing donation is not required.
I have a family member/loved one admitted to a hospital outside of the Nuvance Health network. Can I donate directly to them?
Nuvance Health is unable to transfer plasma to hospitals outside of our network. You can contact the hospital where the patient is admitted and discuss if this is possible at their location.
I have a family member/loved one admitted to a Nuvance hospital. Can my donation be given directly to them?
No. We cannot direct specific donors to a specific recipient. Plasma must be matched to a recipient based on blood type. Also, plasma may not be the right option for every patient. The decision to use plasma therapy is based on federal regulation, availability and patient specific criteria set by the treating teams.
The curve seems to be flattening. Is plasma still needed?
Yes, we still need plasma. Excess plasma can be safely stored in the event a “second wave” occurs.
Who is coordinating this team?
Our Convalescent Plasma Team consists of doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, research teams, blood bank personnel and support personnel from across our entire network to help coordinate this treatment. We have been working tirelessly since early March to develop this program.
Whom can I contact if I have additional questions?
Prospective candidates can call 888-410-1211 for more information.