COVID-19 News

Military Health System shows off its convalescent plasma collection efforts

The world is searching for a treatment, a cure and a prevention for COVID-19. One piece of that puzzle may be tapped via the sap of human life – blood. At Madigan Army Medical Center, and 14 other Department of Defense (DoD) facilities, those who have recovered from COVID-19 can donate the liquid part of their blood – the plasma – to be used as a treatment for those battling the disease now.

On a recent visit to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Thomas McCaffery made a special stop at the Armed Services Blood Bank Center - Pacific Northwest (ASBBC-PNW) to talk to the staff about convalescent plasma and the DoD’s effort to collect 10,000 units by Sept. 30.

“We are doing this across the DoD, across the Military Health System,” McCaffery said. “This is an all-in effort, we are counting down to the end of September to get those ten thousand units.”

During his tour of the facility, McCaffery was escorted by Maj. Juan Guzman, the chief of the ASBBC-PNW, and informed on the center’s operations by a number of staff. Capt. Zachary Albright, the center’s officer-in-charge, met McCaffery at the door and walked him right to the temperature scanner Navy Hospitalman Edward Yelland, a lab technician, had ready for McCaffery’s forehead. This measure was just one of the non-pharmaceutical interventions the center has in place to combat the spread of COVID-19.

With the exception of the short amount of time when McCaffery and Guzman filmed a public service announcement for the plasma collection effort, everyone on the premises wore a face covering; while filming, social distancing was observed.

Albright had the center’s impressive blood product collection numbers at the ready and offered an overview of operations before Maj. (Dr.) Benjamin Cook, the medical director for Transfusion Services, gave McCaffery a blast of chilly air from the center’s deep freezers.

According to the National Institutes of Health, plasma must be frozen at subzero temperatures to retain viability.

After a look at the processing area and an introduction to the tri-service staff, McCaffery was shown the apheresis room where Steve Christodoulou, an apheresis nurse, and Frank Wake, a phlebotomist, busily attended to a COVID-19 convalescent plasma donor. The assistant secretary enthusiastically observed the process, viewing the donor’s blood being drawn from them and through tubing into an apheresis machine that separated the plasma and sent the rest back into the donor. Within that plasma reside antibodies – proteins that the immune system produces in response to infection.

Some information of both the history and effectiveness of convalescent plasma can be found on the American Society of Hematology’s website.

Convalescent plasma has been used for nearly a century to transfer antibodies from a recovered person to help protect another from an infection. In that time, there has been some evidence that there has been benefit against rabies, hepatitis B, polio, measles, influenza, Ebola and other pathogens. Small case studies have also shown that during previous coronavirus outbreaks of Middle East respiratory syndrome and severe acute respiratory syndrome (known as MERS and SARS, respectively), the use of convalescent plasma was both safe and helpful in clearing the virus faster.

“It is important for people to donate,” Guzman said. “It’s helping lives.”

Beyond speeding the clearance of the virus, McCaffery also sees expanded possibilities in the plasma’s use.

“We believe there is potential for this plasma to ultimately be converted into another treatment that can be used as a preventive measure, or be used for somebody who has been exposed to COVID and can get this as treatment to prevent the further development of the virus,” McCaffery said.

During non-COVID times, the ASBBC-PNW has a full schedule of mobile blood drives to collect blood. But, even then, apheresis is a process that does not travel well; donors must come into the center to donate.

The apheresis process takes longer than typical blood donation, roughly 45 minutes, but is no more complicated for the donor. The center has lounge chairs, reading material, televisions and movies and no shortage of snacks. The staff ensures that it has all the favorites of regular donors on hand to make them as comfortable as possible.

“People can donate several ways – through apheresis or through whole blood,” Guzman aid. “People can offer their blood, their life-saving product and help out people in need.”

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