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Recovered COVID-19 patients may help treat it with plasma donations, but few have donated in Inland Northwest

Vail Mayor Dave Chapin gets hooked up to donate plasma Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Vail, Colo. Bonfils Blood Center, the mountain division of Vitalant, was one of the first blood centers taking donations of plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19. Chapin, who has recovered from COVID-19, said it felt good to be able to give back after the experience. (Chris Dillmann / Vail Daily via AP)

Dr. Prakash Gatta couldn’t believe his ears when he got the phone call in late March: The test came back positive. The Tacoma-based surgeon had contracted COVID-19, just as the virus case counts in Washington were peaking.

Gatta had no idea where he could have contracted the virus, but he was thankful he stayed home and away from work while he awaited his test results.

He sequestered himself in the basement, staying away as best he could from his wife and two children. He was never hospitalized but did have periods where he had shortness of breath and chest pain, “like I’ve never experienced before,” he said.

In early April, when his symptoms had subsided, the doctor got back on his feet and back to work. Once he was several weeks beyond his symptoms and recovered from the virus, Gatta decided to donate his convalescent plasma, which is being used to help treat some patients with COVID-19.

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved convalescent plasma as a treatment yet, so it is being used as an investigational drug, much like remdesivir, which has been used to treat ebola and SARS. A large clinical trial, which hospitals can opt into around the country, is led by the Mayo Clinic and studying the use of convalescent plasma as a way to treat patients with severe cases of COVID-19.

Convalescent plasma is the liquid part of a person’s blood, and for someone who has had COVID-19 and recovers, that means their plasma contains the antibodies developed when fighting off the virus. Those antibodies in the plasma are being used to treat COVID-19 patients throughout the country.

So far more than 14,000 patients have been infused with plasma through the program. Unlike other investigational drugs and therapies in clinical trials, plasma is not created in a lab, and former COVID-19 patients who have recovered must donate their plasma in order for the treatment to be used.

In the Inland Northwest as of late last week, only two recovered COVID-19 patients have donated plasma so far through Vitalant – the region’s blood bank. A person with COVID-19 must be recovered and without symptoms for at least two weeks before donating. If a person who had COVID-19 has been symptom-free for 28 days, they do not need to present a negative test to donate plasma.

So far 73% of the 450 residents in Spokane County who have tested positive for COVID-19 have recovered. That means more than 325 people could be eligible to help by donating plasma.

While past research on other viruses suggests that treating a patient with plasma could be promising, the trial has a long way to go to prove its effectiveness in treating COVID-19. Or as Chris Gresens, chief medical officer for Vitalant’s northwest divisions says, “There’s no secret sauce here.”

Researchers are trying to match donor plasma type to a patient’s type. For example, the plasma from a donor with type O blood would go to a patient who also has type O. However, this is not always perfect, with limited donation supplies.

Vitalant has created a questionnaire that helps detail the list of requirements for a donor to meet before donating. Currently, the list of requirements for COVID-19 plasma donors is very similar to the requirements for blood donors.

Things like living abroad during a certain time period or getting a tattoo in certain states can make someone ineligible to donate blood at Vitalant, which serves as the Inland Northwest’s blood and COVID-19 plasma donation center. Only about 38% of the population is able to donate blood due to strict requirements, and these estimates likely hold true with COVID-19 plasma donors as well.

Gatta has type B positive blood. About 15% of patients could match that type, Gresens said. Donating plasma is a bit different than donating blood.

The process means a needle in the arm for about an hour, Gatta said, but that could vary based on the person. Extracting convalescent plasma is different than a blood draw because all the platelets and other things that aren’t liquid in a person’s blood are returned to their body.

The clinical trial will help determine how effective plasma is for treating COVID-19. Infusion with convalescent plasma has not been proven as a treatment so far, however – hence the importance of clinical trials conducted throughout the country. All four Spokane area hospitals are participating in the trial and able to treat patients with plasma.

Gresens hopes that research will show that people who have had the virus will develop antibodies to neutralize the virus – thus making plasma an effective treatment to those currently fighting COVID-19.

“One caveat to keep in mind is this is still in research phase, but there’s past precedent to suggest the reasonable possibility that this will work,” Gresens said.

For Gatta, the potential for plasma to help treat COVID-19 patients was worth donating his plasma.

“A year from now we may have only one thing, which is plasma, it’s important that people donate now knowing it won’t go to waste, it can be used for a year,” Gatta said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.