As the number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 surges to record highs in Colorado, doctors at UCHealth are encouraging patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 to donate convalescent plasma after they recover.
With no cure currently available for the disease that has killed more than 235,000 people in the United States, numerous studies are underway to determine whether convalescent plasma, which contains antibodies to the virus, helps boost a patient’s immune system to help fight the virus.
UCHealth began providing convalescent plasma to severely ill hospitalized patients last spring. Several studies are ongoing at UCHealth, including the PassItOn trial, a National Institutes of Health-funded study that will enroll 1,000 patients across the country aimed at trying to prevent disease progression and improve recovery. The C3PO study, also funded by NIH, aims to try to prevent progression of the disease and improve recovery for patients who come to the Emergency Department and are positive for COVID-19.
Dr. Steven Schuster, a hematologist and medical director of oncology research for UCHealth in northern Colorado, cites the US Convalescent Plasma EAP program, which shows that critically ill patients who received a “high titer’’ unit, meaning a greater concentration of COVID-19 antibodies, within the first three days of treatment had a 27 percent reduction in the mortality rate.
“At the start of this pandemic, we thought giving convalescent plasma was a good idea, but now we have good evidence across the country that it reduces the risk of death by 20% to up to 40%,” Schuster said. “This is a big deal and so we are using more of it.
“We are evaluating every patient, and if oxygen levels are getting low or they are headed the wrong way despite our support of care, we are considering convalescent plasma for that patient,” Schuster said.
In recent weeks, the number of people hospitalized at UCHealth hospitals has significantly increased, with about 200 patients hospitalized on Nov. 4. That compares with a peak of 263 patients at UCHealth hospitals in early April.
From Oct. 19 to Oct. 25, the Garth Englund Blood Donation Center in Fort Collins saw a 100% increase in convalescent plasma transfusions for hospitalized patients from the previous week.
“We had 42 units given in one week but only 12 units donated in that same week,” Schuster said. “If that keeps up we will run out of supply by Thanksgiving.”
The center and others in Colorado such as Vitalant rely on the charity and goodwill of people like Daniel Gustafson, Ph.D., a clinical pharmacologist at Colorado State University’s Flint Animal Cancer Center. Gustafson has donated convalescent plasma five times since he became ill with COVID-19 in July. Donating the plasma, Gustafson, said, takes about an hour and 20 minutes.
“It’s a pretty slick process, and it is nice to be involved,’’ Gustafson said. “My antibody levels were high and that encouraged me. I am a cancer pharmacologist and I want to help people get better but I also want to give people the re-agents as well.’’
Gustafson said he feels a “sense of community’’ by donating convalescent plasma to help scientists discover more about convalescent plasma as a therapy for COVID-19.
He and his family were taking all the right precautions during their vacation to Nevada over the fourth of July. They headed out with their camper, didn’t interact with anyone along the way, didn’t stay in hotels, and stopped only to get gas. Nevertheless, after a few days in Nevada, Gustafson came down with a fever and chills.
Two days later, back in Fort Collins, Gustafson tested positive. He felt lousy for 5-6 days with fever, chills and a headache. He closely monitored his oxygen level, which at one point sunk to 92, though he never felt respiratory distress.
“Luckily, I recovered and have no lasting effects,’’ he said.
As soon as he recovered, he called the blood donation center because he wanted to donate his convalescent plasma. Even after five donations, his titer – the level of antibodies – remains high, so he may continue to donate.
Patients receive a one-time, one-unit transfusion of convalescent plasma. Donors like Gustafson, however, may give anywhere from one to four units because antibodies last in the bloodstream for several months, and if they have a “high-titer” then they can continue to donate every seven days for up to two months or until tests show a “low-titer” result.
“All our donors did something heroic to help us prove that we could do something to reduce the risk of death in these hospitalized COVID-19 patients,” Schuster said. “But that hasn’t gone away. We are very worried we are going to see increases in these patients over the next few months.’’
Potential donors need to wait 14 days from their last COVID-19 symptom before they can be screened to donate. For Vitalant, the resolution of symptoms is 28 days. They must have experienced symptoms within the last three months and meet all requirements for blood donation by the FDA, and then are given a titer test to determine the concentration of antibodies in the blood.
How do you qualify to donate convalescent plasma?
COVID-19 convalescent plasma may only be collected from people who have recovered from COVID-19. You must have:
- A prior diagnosis of COVID-19 documented by a laboratory test.
- Complete resolution of symptoms for at least 14 days before the donation.
- Experienced symptoms within the last three months.
- Met all the requirements for blood donation.
After the first convalescent plasma donation, the plasma is given a titer test to determine antibody strength. Read more about donating convalescent plasma.
Where can I donate convalescent plasma?
- In Longmont, Greeley, Loveland, Fort Collins, Estes Park: Fill out this form or contact Kaitlin Zobel with the Garth Englund Blood Donation Center in Fort Collins: 970-495-8987.
- For those outside of the Fort Collins area, you may find additional information, donation opportunities and see if you qualify to donate blood or convalescent plasma by visiting Vitalant.org or call 877-25-VITAL (877-258-4825).