If you've already recovered from the disease, you can help out in a big way.

By Claire Gillespie
April 20, 2020
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For those of us who aren't on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic as essential workers, the best way to help out has been pretty straightforward: practice social distancing by staying home. But now, people who have already had COVID-19 may be able to start helping out in a way many others can't: donating their blood plasma. 

As part of the ongoing fight against the disease—which has infected more than 750,000 people in the US, according to the most recent data by Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center—the American Red Cross has partnered with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to acquire convalescent plasma donations from those who have contracted and recovered from COVID-19.

Here's everything you need to know about plasma donation—including why it's so helpful, and how you can help out.

What is blood plasma, and why could it benefit COVID-19 patients?

According to the Red Cross, convalescent plasma is the liquid part of blood that carries cells and proteins throughout the body—about 55% of your blood is made up of plasma; the other 45% is red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Overall, blood plasma has four essential functions: It helps maintain blood pressure and volume, aids with blood clotting and immunity, supplies muscles with electrolytes like sodium and potassium, and helps maintain your body's pH balance to help cells function properly.

Typically, blood plasma is given to trauma, burn, and shock patients, along with those who suffer from severe liver disease, immune deficiencies, or bleeding disorders. According to nonprofit The Blood Center, the primary supplier of plasma derivatives to local hospitals throughout South Louisiana and parts of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, children and adults with leukemia and other types of cancer, and people undergoing bone marrow transplants may also require plasma transfusions.

It's blood plasma's role in immunity that may benefit coronavirus patients—particularly because a vaccine is not yet available. "When a patient becomes infected with COVID-19, the body starts to build its own immune response by creating antibodies to fight the virus, which can take anywhere from seven to 14 days,” Kimberly Sanford, MD, President-Elect of the American Society for Clinical Pathology and director of transfusion medicine at VCU Health, tells Health. “By receiving blood plasma from a survivor, patients acquire the protective antibodies needed to fight the virus, shortening the time it takes for a patient to develop them on their own.” Ultimately, blood plasma from previously infected COVID-19 patients may help current patients recover from the infection more quickly.

As with many new and experimental treatments for COVID-19, blood plasma has yet to be named as a proven, effective treatment for general use, but the FDA has begun encouraging recovered COVID-19 patients to donate plasma for the development of blood-related therapies. On April 3, the agency announced a "national effort to facilitate the development of, and access to, two investigational therapies derived from human blood," one of which being convalescent plasma. (The other, hyperimmune globulin, is also an antibody-rich blood product that may benefit COVID-19 patients.)

The FDA points to "prior experience with respiratory viruses" along with data from China—specifically a study published on MedRxiv, a preprint server of yet-to-be peer-reviewed studies—that shows convalescent plasma has the potential to "lessen the severity or shorten the length of illness caused by COVID-19." Studies carried out during previous epidemics and pandemics, including Ebola, SARS, MERS and 2009 H1N1 (swine flu), also suggest convalescent plasma can be beneficial, hematologist and oncologist Timothy Byun, MD, who directs cancer research at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, CA, tells Health. 

In addition to facilitating a nationwide program to allow for the collection and distribution of blood plasma, along with the Mayo Clinic and the Red Cross, the FDA is also "facilitating the conduct of well-controlled clinical trials at academic institutions to rigorously evaluate the safety and efficacy of convalescent plasma," per the agency's news release.

How can you donate blood plasma?

Most important: In order to donate blood plasma specifically for COVID-19 patients, you must have been tested for COVID-19 and with a confirmed diagnosis. If you only experienced symptoms of COVID-19 but weren't tested, you’re not eligible at this point, although you can complete the American Red Cross donor contact form to be contacted when a process for testing unverified COVID-19 cases has been established.

While each hospital and organization can operate under their own guidelines, the current FDA guidelines require a plasma donor to have received a positive COVID-19 test, followed by a negative test, and to have been symptom-free for at least 14 days; or to have received a positive COVID-19 test followed by a symptom-free period of at least 28 days. 

Past that, the Red Cross says that plasma donors must also meet regular blood donation eligibility requirements. That includes being at least 17 years old, weighing a minimum of 110 pounds, and being in generally good health and feeling well, even if you have a chronic condition.

Before donating plasma, the American Red Cross recommends drinking an extra 16 ounces of water or other nonalcoholic drink and eating a healthy meal (avoid fatty/junk foods) to help prevent dehydration, lightheadedness, dizziness and fatigue. 

The act of donating plasma is also a bit different than a general blood donation, according to Dr. Byun, who was part of the team responsible for the first plasma transfer in the Western US. During a plasma donation at an official collection site, blood is drawn from the arm and passed through a machine that collects the plasma, then returns the red cells and platelets back to the donor, along with some saline to replace the withdrawn plasma. The procedure is perfectly safe, takes about an hour or so, and the most common side effects are mild dehydration and fatigue. Some donors may experience bruising at the injection site. 

To donate plasma safely, make sure you visit an accredited center, where you should go through a screening process that includes an initial blood test, a questionnaire and a physical exam. If you complete the donor contact form on the American Red Cross website, you’ll be contacted by a representative who will confirm eligibility and advise you of the next steps. You can also find a list of plasma donation centers operating during the coronavirus pandemic on DonatingPlasma.org

If you’ve survived COVID-19, donating plasma is something that could truly help benefit those who are currently suffering from the disease.“We are heavily relying on those who have survived the virus to provide the immunity that we can’t currently create with a vaccine," says Dr. Sanford.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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