Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Plasma in demand: Some COVID-19 survivors are donating to help hospitalized patients

Rylie Carty isn’t sure how she contracted COVID-19 over the summer, but she knew to get tested after she lost her senses of taste and smell and felt more tired than normal. Her symptoms, including her lost senses, did not stick around for long, however.

Once she had recovered, she wanted to donate her convalescent plasma to help sicker COVID patients in the hospital, who could benefit from the antibodies now in her blood. Carty, who lives in Spokane, first donated her convalescent plasma in August at Vitalant, the region’s blood bank.

COVID-19 survivors can also get paid for their plasma by other myriad plasma centers, which will in turn use that plasma for further research on medicines and therapies that might help treat the virus. One alliance is using plasma to develop a hyperimmune globulin, which researchers hope can be a medicine used to treat the virus in the future.

The phenomenon of selling COVID plasma led officials at BYU-Idaho to release a statement this week to condemn unsubstantiated rumors of students purposely infecting themselves with the virus so that they could be paid for their COVID plasma. (A large plasma donation industry already existed before the pandemic and pays people for their donations, without a virus.)

In order for a COVID survivor’s plasma to be used as a transfusable antibody treatment for hospitalized COVID-19 patients, however, they must donate at centers approved to collect and distribute convalescent plasma throughout the country. Locally in the Spokane area, that’s at Vitalant.

Convalescent plasma, the yellow liquid portion of the blood from a person who had the virus contains antibodies, may be effective in treating patients with more severe symptoms, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

In August, the FDA authorized convalescent plasma as treatment for patients after clinical trials produced encouraging outcomes, and there is still a need for donations from former COVID patients.

The good news is former COVID patients can donate more than once. Carty has gone back five times so far.

Thankfully, when Carty got the virus, she did not pass it along to her grandmother, fiancé or other family members she had been around when she might have been contagious. But it scared her knowing that she could have.

“I would say it was definitely scary when I had COVID, because I’m younger, I knew that I would for the most part get over it and not have lingering symptoms or anything, but when I had it unknowingly I was around my grandma and it freaked me out,” Carty said. “Luckily no one I was with, including my fiance, (got) it.”

So far, 128 recovered COVID-19 patients have donated their convalescent plasma in the Spokane area at Vitalant blood donation centers, which is a big increase from earlier in the summer.

Carty, who is 24, is able to make appointments at Vitalant fit into her schedule. She will swing by after work to donate, she said. She said the environment is friendly, and the staff give her snacks to get her through her donation. The needle is big, she said, and the donation takes about an hour each time. But for Carty, it is worth it.

“Thinking about the older generation and how you can prevent them from getting it because it’s definitely going to affect them more negatively, I would hope if my grandma or someone’s grandparent was in that situation that they could get plasma,” Carty said.

To be eligible, a person must be at least 28 days beyond their COVID-19 symptoms and provide proof that they did test positive. They also must meet the other plasma donation eligibility requirements. COVID survivors can donate their convalescent plasma as often as once a week, said Vicki Wolfe, communications manager at Vitalant .

In Spokane County, at least 72% of the residents with diagnosed COVID-19 cases are likely eligible to donate, and Wolfe said donations are still critically needed.

Vitalant plans to host a donation drive for convalescent plasma in the Pullman area in late October or November. Hundreds of college students, who have since recovered from the virus, will be eligible to donate their convalescent plasma.

In Pullman, college students returning to the area and testing positive by the hundreds led to the virus spreading throughout the community. There are current outbreaks in not only Greek housing at WSU and dorms but also in nine long-term care facilities and a school. Three Whitman County residents have died from COVID-19, all older than 60.

On Monday, rumors of students trying to get the virus so they could sell their plasma led BYU-Idaho to issue a strong condemnation.

“The university condemns this behavior and is actively seeking evidence of any such conduct among our student body,” a statement from the university said. “Students who are determined to have intentionally exposed themselves or others to the virus will be immediately suspended from the university and may be permanently dismissed.”

The Eastern Idaho Public Health Department has not found any instances of intentional exposures to the virus through contact tracing efforts, however, said Mimi Turner, public information officer with the health department .

Cases in Madison County, Idaho, do continue to skyrocket, largely due to college students testing positive. As of Wednesday, 119 BYU-Idaho students have active cases of the virus.

There is a mask mandate in Madison County, and Turner said contact tracing remains a challenge there.

“We’re trying to focus on how we can keep it from spreading to other age demographics and populations,” Turner 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.