Northside Hospital has announced an urgent need for COVID-19 convalescent plasma (CCP), the clear liquid part of the blood from recovered COVID-19 patients containing potentially life-saving virus antibodies.
Granted Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the FDA last August, CCP is given to hospitalized COVID-19 patients as soon after diagnosis as possible and has helped more than 100,000 sick Americans.
But demand is up, and supply is down. What gives?
According to Carrie Cox, executive director of Atlanta Blood Services (ABS), a major local supplier of CCP, only 3% of eligible donors normally give blood.
“We’ve also seen a higher rate of cancellations [of donor appointments] because of potential illness,” Cox said, “and many people are staying home.”
All that’s required to donate is that you: are age 17 or older; weigh at least 110 pounds; have had a positive COVID-19 diagnosis; are at least 14 days without symptoms; pass a hemoglobin test to assure a healthy iron blood count; have normal blood pressure, pulse and temperature; are in general good health and have not been vaccinated.
“There’s no upper age limit,” said Cox, “but if you’re over 70, we’ll reach out to your doctor to be sure it’s safe for you to donate.”
Prime donors are people who have recovered in the last 14 to 90 days because they have the highest level of antibodies. Most needed are blood types B and AB, with rare AB- the universal plasma donor.
Surprisingly, since the virus is not transmitted through blood, you can donate even if you’re still COVID positive but no longer have symptoms. The whole process takes about two-and-a-half hours, with about two hours for the withdrawal.
“There’s one big needle stick, and you have to keep your arm straight and still,” said Cox. “We keep you warm and feed you snacks while you watch a movie on a Kindle on a little TV cart.”
For most donations, Atlanta Blood Services uses an apheresis machine, with one needle and two tubes that withdraw your plasma and return the rest of the blood to you. Unlike a whole-blood donation, which yields only one plasma dose per donation, the apheresis machine yields up to four doses per donation, enabling one donor to help four patients.
To find out more, I spoke with some recent donors, many of whom have donated multiple times.
For some, donating is a family affair. Dr. Lonnie Herzog, an internal medicine physician, and his wife Kim and daughter Nikki donated their CCP to ABS together. His son, Dr. Alex Herzog, who had not had the virus, joined them for moral support.
“We were fortunate to have mild cases and recovered quickly without any complications,” said Herzog. “It was important to be able to give as a family.”
Dunwoody sales engineer Chris Germann, diagnosed in late July, was “wiped out for two days.”
“I self-quarantined in the basement for 10 days. My wife opened the door and threw food down. When I was thirsty, I went outside to the sprinkler. Nobody else got it,” he said. A sense of humor helps.
With AB- blood, Germann is a universal plasma donor, has donated CCP three times (plus more than 25 units of platelets since 2015) and considers donating personal downtime.
“The hardest part is sitting still for two hours,” he said. “The needle doesn’t hurt as much as pulling the tape off, and you get to watch a movie, drink water or juice and eat junk food.”
Sandy Springs marketing executive Sarah Anne Dickman was sick for eight days in December and has already donated and scheduled a second appointment.
“I didn’t know about CCP till I read about it on Facebook,” she said. “It might seem intimidating, but it’s just a needle stick.”
Dunwoody teacher Stacey Asher was sick for a week in July and has donated five times, sometimes while attending virtual faculty meetings.
“It helps more people than you know,” she said.
And do patients who receive CCP ever give back?
Attorney Richard Morgan did.
In November, hospitalized in the ICU at Northside with COVID-19 and double-pneumonia, his oxygen level “plummeted” so low he was told “it could go either way.” Within 24 hours of receiving CCP and other experimental medications, his body started fighting back.
“The doctors were shocked at my fast turn-around,” he wrote in his newsletter. He’s now a CCP donor at ABS.
Atlanta Blood Services has locations at Northside Hospital Sandy Springs and Marietta. For information, go to atlantabloodservices.com.