The American Red Cross, in collaboration with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asks those who have fully recovered from COVID-19 to donate their plasma. This antibody-rich product is a potentially lifesaving treatment for critically ill COVID-19 patients.
“This need is going to be continual and persistent for quite some time. There are projections that as a health care system and as a global community, we may perhaps be dealing with this virus and its effects for 18 months to two years. Since the virus in new to us, our understanding of its behavior is limited. I want to encourage everyone if they think they qualify to continue to sign up and get the word out that we are still actively looking for donors,” said Dr. Baia Lasky, American Red Cross Regional Medical Director.
This effort has presented an “interesting challenge” for the nonprofit, which supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s blood and provides supports after disasters, because it has to wait for people to recover to collect their convalescent plasma, while more and more people are getting ill.
“We have collected and shipped probably close to 1,700 units of convalescent plasma (nationally); 44 of those units have come from Georgia donors,” Dr. Lasky said in early May.
Frank Papola, a recovered COVID-19 patient from DeKalb County, answered the call to donate his plasma at the American Red Cross Blood Donation Center in Atlanta.
“It meant the world to me,” Papola said. “Going into the hospital, I left my wife at the door. With my condition, I just didn’t know how it was going to turn out. Fortunately, it turned out great.”
Married with two daughters and five grandchildren, Papola is a retired carpenter by trade who worked as a homebuilder for many years. On March 17, he felt fine when he went to bed.
“March 18, I woke up and had the classic signs – chills, very high fever, cough, tight chest. I knew I was very sick, so I called my health care provider and he said go to the hospital,” Papola said.
Papola stayed in Piedmont Hospital for about a week.“It was a pretty scary event, but thank God I pulled through it,” Papola said.
Initially hospitals were helping identify potential donors, but that proved to be a manual and non-scalable process. So, the Red Cross turned to the community. But, until recently, only a small percentage of individuals, like Papola, met FDA’s eligibility criteria, of verified COVID-19 diagnosis, as well as being symptom free for at least 28 days prior to donation (or at least 14 days with a negative COVID-19 test result).
“As of April 27, the Red Cross has initiated antibody testing – so we no longer require that initial positive test. It’s really opened up the donor pool for us,” Dr. Lasky said.
So those who were symptomatic or received presumptive diagnosis from their physician, can now prequalify as a convalescent plasma donor, since the Red Cross can verify on the backend through its own antibody testing. Note the Red Cross is not offering COVID-19 antibody testing for the general public nor to its routine blood, platelet or plasma donors.
Once Papola became aware of the convalescent plasma program, he signed up to help.
“There’s a lot of people doing a lot of good and I wanted to do something. So, how simple is it to sit in a chair and donate my plasma. It’s basically like giving blood. To know that I could possibly be helping someone survive this awful disease. I don’t think anything was more rewarding, other than having my kids and grandkids,” Papola said.
At the end of May, Papola donated his convalescent plasma for a second time. He urges others to follow his lead.
“Donate and not just plasma, donate blood. There’s a real need. Donations are down, from what I was told. They make it very easy. It takes just about an hour of your time. There was no after effective. Just go and do it,” Papola said.
Learn more at RedCrossBlood.org/plasma4covid.