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El Paso hospitals seek ‘convalescent plasma’ to aid in COVID-19 recovery

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Second in a series on implications of COVID-19 antibody testing. Previously: Antibody testing begins in El Paso. Next: Getting results from testing.

El Paso hospitals in the fight to help heal patients with COVID-19 are calling on the hundreds of survivors of the illness in the area to donate their convalescent plasma.

University Medical Center of El Paso, El Paso Children’s Hospital and Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso are asking that those who have tested positive and fully recovered from the disease donate their plasma, which contains antibodies that may help patients recover.

“If you made it through, you’ve got the golden ticket (to help save lives),” UMC spokesman Ryan Meilke said.

About 10 recovered El Pasoans have donated convalescent plasma since the program was announced May 4.

Alan Russell, chairman of the board and CEO of the Tecma Group of Companies, who also serves on the board of the Borderplex Alliance, and his wife Patty Russell are among the few recovered COVID-19 survivors who have donated their convalescent plasma.

Alan Russell of El Paso, who has COVID-19 antibodies, donates convalescent plasma. (Photo courtesy of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.)

“It was just a natural thing to do because we heard our plasma could help people that are sick,” Alan Russell said.

Las Palmas Del Sol Healthcare also is participating in a study of the effectiveness of convalescent plasma in COVID-19 recovery.

“The success of the study hinges on the continued collection of plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients,” Dr. Oscar Vega, chief medical officer of Las Palmas Medical Center, said. “People in this community are always willing to help each other, and recovered patients are looking for ways to help. Plasma donations, for those who are eligible, is a great option.”

Early undiagnosed COVID-19 cases in El Paso

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in El Paso was officially documented March 13.

Patty Russell was the first of the couple to begin to feel ill at the end of February and early March. At the time she thought it was a case of the flu.

On March 2, her symptoms were getting more severe and she developed a fever. She decided to go to a small emergency room, where she was tested for the flu. She said the nurse told her the flu test was inconclusive, but that it was the likely culprit.

“They didn’t even have that (COVID-19) test, there was nothing at that time. They only had a flu test,” Patty Russell said.

By March 5, Alan Russell said he was also feeling sick and they both treated the virus as if it was the flu. They said they kept away from people because they didn’t want anyone else to catch what they thought was the flu. 

Neither were tested for COVID-19, but they began to suspect their illness may have been just that. They heard about an antibody testing program from Healthlabs.com for people who suspected they had COVID-19, but hadn’t been tested. The results for both of them came back as positive for the antibodies.

Russell of El Paso, who believes she was infected with COVID-19 in early March, donates convalescent plasma. (Photo courtesy of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.)

Patty Russell said she suspects she contracted the virus while traveling on a flight from Florida, where a man seated behind her was coughing in her direction.

“I actually offered him a cough drop, but he wouldn’t take it. I told Alan after that trip how annoyed I was that he was coughing all over me; so that was about a week before I actually got sick,” she said.

Both recovered without being hospitalized, but Patty Russell said she is still having some respiratory issues.

“We felt lucky that we tested for the antibodies, and we had it (COVID-19), and it wasn’t any worse,” Alan Russell said.

El Paso donations help El Pasoans

Dr. Debabrata Mukherjee, professor and chair for the department of internal medicine with Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, said if every recovered patient donates convalescent plasma it can likely serve all of the patients in El Paso’s hospitals.

“It could be the difference between survival and someone succumbing to the illness,” Mukherjee said.

Mukherjee said there is no known cure for COVID-19, but the convalescent plasma contains antibodies that can help to treat those patients and give them a fighting chance at recovery. The method has been used to treat other viral infections, and he said he is optimistic it can help save lives in El Paso.

Vitalant, the nation’s largest independent blood provider, launched the program to treat COVID-19 patients with blood plasma donated by people who have recovered. In coordination with local hospitals, Vitalant is working to identify willing donors who qualify.

How to participate

Vitalant is seeking convalescent plasma donors to help patients.

Eligibility criteria include prior diagnosis of COVID-19 documented by a laboratory test and complete resolution of symptoms for at least 14 days. Potential donors must meet all other current Food and Drug Administration plasma donor eligibility requirements.

Those who meet that criteria and want to donate plasma are encouraged to apply through the Vitalant website Vitalant.org/covidfree.For more information, call 866-CV-PLSMA (866-287-5762).

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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