Rockledge, Florida (April 22, 2020) – While a vaccine for COVID-19 may be months away, Rockledge Regional Medical Center is providing convalescent plasma treatments for appropriate COVID-19 patients, as a partner hospital with OneBlood. The protocol is one that could be lifesaving. “Convalescent plasma therapy is not a new concept and has been tried for SARS - CoV-1, MERS and H1 N1 Influenza outbreaks previously. COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 has no readily available, antiviral treatment options to date. As we fight this pandemic, convalescent plasma is again being evaluated as a possible option,” said Saima Abbas, MD Infection Disease Specialist at Rockledge Regional Medical Center.
“The treatment is considered experimental yet has been approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for use on an emergency basis as well as for expanded access in clinical trials,” said Dr. Abbas. People who recover from COVID-19 infection have developed antibodies to the virus that remain in the plasma portion of their blood. Transfusing this convalescent plasma that contains antibodies into a person with moderate to severe COVID-19 can help target the virus, neutralize it and potentially help them recover.
Rockledge Regional has been able to streamline the process of making this treatment modality available to our sickest COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit. The process is lengthy, but the outcome can be lifesaving. The most important step is finding a donor. Eligible donors must meet three criteria:
- Prior diagnosis of COVID-19 documented by an FDA-approved laboratory test
- Symptom-free for at least 14 days prior to donation
- A negative COVID-19 FDA-approved test or complete resolution of symptoms at least 28 days prior to donation.
Once donors are identified, they must complete a pre-donation form through OneBlood. After the form is completed, a specialist will contact the donor within 24-48 hours to verify the donor has met the criteria and to schedule a collection of blood. After the blood has been collected it is sent to a processing facility where it undergoes additional testing. Within 24 hours, the plasma can be transfused into a patient with COVID-19.
Dr. Abbas evaluates all COVID-19 patients at Rockledge Regional Medical Center and she looks for potential candidates who might benefit from the convalescent plasma treatment. The next step is obtaining authorization from FDA for emergency use for individual cases. She states, the FDA has been approving the request based on the severity of illness and age of patients. While arranging plasma treatments, Dr. Abbas confers with her infectious disease colleagues, both in the Steward Network and infectious disease experts on the frontlines in the Northeast region, some of whom are working in Queens, New York, one of the areas hardest hit by the virus. They share what they are learning about the virus and what is working and what is not. In administering the plasma treatment, Dr. Abbas identifies COVID-19 patients who have moderate to severe symptoms especially those requiring high amounts of oxygen, who are not showing signs of improvement. The key is to try to give the convalescent plasma treatment to patients earlier in the course of the disease and ideally before they require intubation, which is the placement of an endotracheal tube into their mouth and airway so they can be assisted with their breathing through the use of a ventilator.
Currently patients that are hospitalized are receiving supportive care to treat their symptoms but as Dr. Abbas states, “there are no available medications specifically attacking the virus.” The hope is that by administering the convalescent plasma, there are enough antibodies within the treatment to neutralize the virus. According to OneBlood, “they are not currently testing (the plasma) for COVID-19 antibodies but are expecting this to become widely available in the near future.”
Rockledge Regional Medical Center has administered convalescent plasma treatments to two patients as of April 22, said Charles Biondo, the hospital’s laboratory director. While it may take one to two weeks to see the full impact of the treatment, the outlook appears to be positive after just a few days. “One patient was able to wean down their oxygen level by 20% and the other patient is improving,” announced, Dr. Abbas. She feels that treating the patients earlier will result in the best outcomes and added, “We are cautiously optimistic that this will save lives.”