As COVID-19 cases continue to swell in the Rio Grande Valley, and the global race to develop a vaccine rages on, the pressure for overwhelmed local hospitals to stay alert of new information is high.
Plasma donations are one of the several new practices the local healthcare field has adopted to combat COVID-19. Plasma is a component of blood that contains nutrients and proteins, and when an individual is exposed to a disease, it’s where antibodies are developed — a specific attack force the body creates that targets the viruses.
It has been found that people who recover from COVID-19 have an 85% chance of having antibodies in their bloodstream, which can be donated and used to help other patients fighting severe symptoms.
At a healthcare forum hosted by the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Dr. Carlos Cardenas, the board chairman of DHR Health, explained how plasma donations have become fundamental in treating severely ill patients.
“To be able to use plasma donations as a treatment and therapy at DHR and other facilities that are participating … has been a real boon for us,” Cardenas said.
However, he emphasized, plasma with these antibodies is only found in people who have successfully recovered from the coronavirus.
“The plasma does not grow on trees,” Cardenas said. “… So this is a plea to the public, for those of you who have recovered from COVID-19, to volunteer and give your plasma, because that may help someone who is very ill with COVID-19 and potentially get better.”
Dr. Raul Alvarez, a pathologist at McAllen Medical Center, echoed that message.
“You are giving someone who is sick, who does not have these antibodies which go and kill the virus, a chance,” he said.
The same requirements for donating blood apply to plasma donations. Anyone with good health over the age of 16 and weighs at least 110 pounds can donate, a process that takes less than an hour.
Local residents who have recovered from the coronavirus could donate their plasma at the American Red Cross of South Texas in Harlingen, or Vitaliant, which has blood banks in Harlingen and McAllen.
In addition to plasma donation, Alvarez said a recent study by the University of Oxford in England which proved that steroids reduce the COVID-19 mortality rate has been a game changer for how local hospitals treat patients.
According to the study, in which 2,104 random patients were treated with dexamethasone (a steroid), their mortality rate reduced by one-third, compared to 4,321 random patients who received the usual care alone. The study was not continued due to ethical standards, because of the will to treat as many patients possible with dexamethasone.
Before the study, doctors were told not to administer steroids, but that was when there was not enough information on how the virus attacks the body.
“ This changed everything we were doing,” Alvarez said. “We were treating the virus as if it were a respiratory virus, and it is, but we are finding that what the virus does is create a gigantic and drastic inflammatory response.”
The pronounced response is known as an inflammatory cytokine storm.
“Our own immune system just overreacts to this virus and just starts attacking our own body, and it does this by damaging our vessels and creating (blood clots),” he said. “Individuals can die from shortness of breath, damage to lungs, ammonia — it really is a storm.”
McAllen Medical Center has been treating patients with dexamethasone, which is significantly cheaper and more widely used than Remdesivir, a drug that previously was the only substance known to treat COVID-19.
Dexamethasone works to calm the body’s inflammatory response to the coronavirus, which has been found to be the most detrimental part of contracting the disease.
Alvarez added local hospitals also recently started treating COVID-19 patients with anticoagulants, to prevent the formation of blood clots, in addition to proning — laying patents on their belly to promote blood flow.
“So we are trying to stop the inflammation response with steroids, we are trying to stop clots with anticoagulants while laying patients on their stomachs, while also giving patients the antibodies they need to fight the virus,” he said. “All these things are being used in a combination.”
Alvarez then reiterated the need of plasma donations.
“They save a life,” he said. “They oftentimes don’t know who it is going to, or what the end result is. It is very similar to organ donations, it’s a very selfless act.”