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Over the past nine days, AMITA Health Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet has treated 23 patients hospitalized with the novel coronavirus with the new convalescent blood plasma treatment.
Dr. John Walsh, pulmonologist and medical direct, said the hospital ordered 23 units of frozen plasma from the Red Cross in New York, which the hospital received the following day.
“We’ve been giving it to patients who’ve had signs of covid progression,” Walsh said. “They’re typically short of breath, low on oxygen or those who’ve had respiratory failure on the ventilator or signs of multiple organ failure.”
This blood-related treatment – approved by the FDA as an emergency investigational new drug – transfers antibodies from recovered patients into those who are critically ill.
Patients in their 20s to 90s received the treatment at St. Joe’s, Walsh said.
Patients have to be at least 18 years old and must have severe or life-threatening disease or be at risk to progress to that status, Walsh said.
“In the beginning, we gave it typically to the people in the ICU,” Walsh said. “And as we got past those first 10 or 12 patients, we began to use it on those less acutely ill.”
Is the convalescent blood plasma treatment helping these patients?
“That’s a tough question,” Walsh said.
These patients are also receiving Actemra (tocilizumab), an interleukin-6 inhibitor that’s been used to treat moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis in adults. With COVID-19 patients, Actemra can reduce cytokine storm, an overreaction of the immune system that can worsen the respiratory symptoms of the virus.
However, most of the patients who have received the convalescent plasma have shown improvement within a couple of days and without any side effects that can be seen with blood transfusions, he said.
Side effects of blood transfusions include fever, shaking, chills and shortness of breath, Walsh said. No one who received the convalescent plasma treatment has died and a few have gone home, he added.
“So far, it’s been pretty impressive,” Walsh said.
Convalescent plasma helps COVID-19 patients because it contains antibodies against the virus that their bodies would have eventually produced. Walsh said people typically start making them about two weeks from the time of the original infection.
“Most people don’t get sick for five days or so. By the time you start taking care of them, they’re probably in the seven to 10 days from the original infection,” Walsh said. “So they still have four or five or six more days before their immunoglobulins are very effective.
“This gives them what their body was going to produce if they had enough time and I think it really helps people get over the critical period where the virus load is rising and not enough antibodies are being produced at an adequate rate yet.”
Walsh said more plasma donations are needed, especially locally. He said again that the plasma St. Joe’s received came from people in New York who donated in New York.
“You just have to call Versiti or the American Red Cross of any of the blood banks,” Walsh said. “They’re all doing this right now.”
Versiti senior medical director Dan Waxman explained the criteria for donating plasma in a news release.
“The recovered donors must be proven to have had a COVID-19 diagnosis through a positive lab test result by a physician or laboratory,” Waxman said in the release. “That individual must then be symptom free for 28 days, or if symptom free for 14 to 27 days, they must provide results of a negative test.”