Demand for plasma for COVID-19 patients remains high in Southwest Florida

Liz Freeman
 
| Fort Myers News-Press

When Connie Ramos-Williams was hospitalized recently with COVID-19, her hope of plasma therapy was dashed.

That’s why the public relations professional in Fort Myers has become an advocate for people who have recovered from the novel coronavirus to donate their plasma so others don’t face her disappointment.

“When I am able, I’m hoping they can take my plasma so I can help somebody,” she said.

Convalescent plasma is a treatment for individuals with active COVID-19 yet it relies on recovered patients donating their plasma.

The plasma containing infection-fighting antibodies is processed for viability. It is transfused in patients hospitalized with the virus to potentially help them get well sooner.

Ramos-Williams, 54, was admitted to HealthPark Medical Center, part of Lee Health, on Oct. 24 and stayed a week. She is not certain how she contracted the virus but acknowledged having gone out to eat with family for dinner.

She needed oxygen and was put on remdesivir, an anti-viral medication to stop the virus from spreading in the body.

More: COVID-19 hospitalizations rise in Lee County as threats from flu and winter residents arrive

More: Reported COVID-19 cases for Lee residents in October surged to late summer levels

Her doctor wanted to give her convalescent plasma but she was told they didn’t have a match for her.

“I had that optimism,” she said. “Unfortunately, Lee Health was never able to get me plasma.”

Jeremy Puckett, supervisor of Lee Health’s blood center, said he doesn’t know the particulars of what happened with Ramos-Williams, yet he did say the hospital system faced a shortage of certain blood types of convalescent plasma the last week of October.

Lee Health issued a media alert to help get the word out for the need for plasma donors who have recovered from COVID-19. It was not the first time Lee Health had to ask for plasma donors and steadily the supply is going up, Puckett said.

NCH Healthcare System in Collier County isn’t facing any shortages with convalescent plasma, according to Dr. David Lindner, medical director of NCH’s coronavirus team.

“We are well supplied with plasma right now,” he said.

Hospital staff are diligent about talking to recovered COVID-19 patients at discharge about donating plasma.

Donors must wait 14 days after becoming symptom-free and meet other criteria, such as having a previous positive test for COVID-19 and then are screened with questions by clinical personnel to determine if they are appropriate to donate blood, according to Lee Health.

 “We are just hoping people keep that up,” Lindner said.

Flu season is coming

With the number of COVID-19 cases going up and flu season starting, Ramos-Williams said recovered patients need to step up and donate their plasma to help others.

Hospital officials in the region share her concern.

“While we all look forward to the winter season, we need to be aware of how it provides a more favorable environment for the spread of infectious disease,” Dr. Larry Antonucci, president & CEO of Lee Health, said during a COVID-19 media briefing Wednesday.

Lee Health is seeing a troubling trend of more hospitalizations in recent weeks with COVID-19 and it stood Wednesday at 84 patients, he said. Antonucci said 89% of beds were occupied, of which 6.7% were COVID-19 patients.

While the volume is not at peak numbers seen in July when COVID-19 hospitalizations were triple, Lee Health regularly is at 95% capacity in the winter when the population in Southwest Florida is greatest, he said.

A rash of COVID-19 hospitalizations in winter could pose severe challenges for resources, he said.

“If we do see a surge in cases similar to that of July, community resources will be stretched,” Antonucci said.

He reiterated the importance of mask wearing, social distancing and frequent hand-washing to help prevent spread of the virus.

The state Department of Health reports COVID-19 cases in Southwest Florida and around the state climbed sharply in October and the trend is continuing.

DOH reported 173 new cases in Lee County on Thursday for a cumulative of 24,328 cases since the pandemic began in March.

It took the county just eight days to add 1,000 cases, which hasn’t happened since August when the county added 1,000 new cases in seven days, according to state health data.

In Collier, the state reported 96 new cases Thursday and the cumulative is 15,005 since the pandemic began. NCH had 30 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 Wednesday. NCH peaked in mid-July at 144 COVID-19 patients, data shows.

Lindner, of NCH, said he also expects a surge of cases in winter.

“We still want to see our seasonal residents come,” he said. “Population density probably has more to do with COVID-19 than anything else. We expect to go up because the population will go up.”

Collier County’s mask requirement, in effect since summer and remaining until mid-April, has been helpful for the local economy to stay open and buys time until a vaccine is available, he said.

Lee County does not have a mask requirement.

Local hospitals part of Mayo Clinic study

Lee Health and the NCH have submitted data about their patients who received convalescent plasma for a clinical study by Mayo Clinic.

The Mayo study has since ended, Lindner said.

About 10,000 physicians nationwide enrolled an estimated 40,000 patients in the Mayo study, he said.

The federal government had coordinated research with academic institutions to use the plasma with patients to expedite it as a therapy for COVID-19.

NCH enrolled 120 patients who needed plasma from late March until the study closed in late August, he said. 

That’s when the FDA gave physicians the green light under an emergency use to provide convalescent plasma therapy to hospitalized patients so there was no longer a need to keep enrolling patients in the study, Lindner said.

The Mayo study has provided three key findings with the first being that the plasma needs to be given to COVID-19 patients within three days of being hospitalized, Lindner said.

The second is that physicians need to consider giving more than one unit of plasma to a patient, and the third finding is there needs to be a sufficient amount of antibodies in the plasma, he said.

Puckett said Lee Health collected 230 units of plasma during the Mayo Clinic study that were used for COVID-19 patients.

Since the study ended, Lee Health has collected another 190 units of convalescent plasma, Puckett said. He didn’t have a figure for how many patients have been transfused already.

“There is a lot of criteria to get a transfusion,” he said.

At NCH, 545 donors have been interested in donating their plasma but some may not have qualified, hospital spokesman Shawn McConnell said.

“Many have donated multiple times,” he said.

Ramos-Williams, the Fort Myers resident who did not get the transfusion, is still isolating at home after being discharged with a negative test for COVID-19.

She understands why some people may forget about donating plasma after getting a negative test and waiting the required 14 days to meet criteria.

She plans on calling Lee Health’s blood center to get evaluated shortly for donating her plasma

 “If I can help someone out, I will,” she said.

News-Press reporter Dan DeLuca contributed to this report.

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