Spectrum starts plasma therapy for COVID-19, but donors needed

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A treatment that has been used to fight other viruses like H1N1 influenza is now being used on patients critically ill with COVID-19 in West Michigan.

Plasma from people who have fully recovered from COVID-19 is rich with antibodies that doctors are hopeful can help those who are still sick.

“It is a really small thing that we can do and it can have huge impact,” Spectrum Health Infectious disease specialist Dr. Gordana Simeunovic said. “We will go through all these difficult times if we are working together and we try to help each other.”

The blood is taken at plasma centers and then infused in people in intensive care at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.

The hospital is a part of the National Convalescent Plasma Project, a group that studies convalescent plasma therapy.

Simeunovic explained that when someone first gets the virus, their immune system has no antibodies to stop it, so the virus reproduces without impediment.

“It takes time to start producing these antibodies and if our immune system, on top of that, is weaker, it can take a longer time to make these antibodies,” she said.

The antibodies from the plasma will attack the virus and slow down the progression of the disease.

“And on top, they will boost the immune system so the immune system can produce its own antibodies, so it has multiple good effects on the cause,” Simeunovic said.

It gives the sick person’s own immune system a fighting chance.

“A one-hour donation can save four lives,” Simeunovic said, adding that donors can do it once a week. “If you recover from COVID, please, please consider donating blood.”

The plasma is in short supply, so it is going to only the most critically ill patients. As of Thursday, only three Butterworth patients had undergoing the therapy. Patients with severe symptoms have the option of having an additional treatment.

But if more plasma was gathered, it could be used on people moderately sick or even those who have been exposed but don’t show symptoms.

“It is early to say, ‘OK, we have cure for COVID.’ Too early, but I am very optimistic about this,” Simeunovic said. “This is a treatment that totally depends on us. It really depends on the donor.”

To donate plasma, people must be symptom-free for at least 14 days. At that point, a second nasal swab test can be taken to verify the virus is gone. Those who have been symptom-free for 27 days do not need a nasal swab.

Patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 through Spectrum Health and are interested in donating do not need to take action. The research team will contact those patients about donation eligibility. Patients who tested positive for the virus outside of Spectrum Heath can email the research department at covid19research@spectrumhealth.org.

Patients who have not formally tested positive for COVID-19 aren’t eligible to donate, but it may be an option in the future.

More information about donating convalescent plasma can be found on Spectrum Health’s website.

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