Meeting new needs: Plasma in demand for Valley virus patients

Plasma collected from recovered COVID-19 patients is in great need in the Rio Grande Valley, where cases continue to rise. The treatment, using the liquid part of the blood containing antibodies against the novel coronavirus, is part of an FDA-backed clinical study investigating convalescent plasma’s potential as a life-saving treatment in critically ill patients.

Shortages of the plasma are being reported across the country, delaying treatment in patients, which doctors in the Rio Grande Valley participating in the Mayo Clinic-led, federally-backed study say has proven most effective before patients become too ill to breathe without intubation.

In the Valley, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance Health Institute for Research and Development is facilitating the research. Convalescent plasma is collected through drives and appointments and is stored by Vitalant, a blood bank with locations in McAllen and Harlingen.

But a lack of public awareness about the treatment’s potential to save lives, as well as shortages of convalescent plasma available to treat a growing number of patients, are highlighting the need for community leaders to step up and incentivize donation.

Brownsville resident Linda Macias, a counselor at IDEA Sports Park, lost her mother to the virus on July 17. Maria Herlinda Olvera, known as Linda, was 46 years old. She sought treatment after experiencing a fever and a headache. Her physician diagnosed her with an ear infection. A few days later, she couldn’t breathe and went to the emergency room at Valley Baptist.

“Eventually, her lungs collapsed and she had to be placed on life support. It was the scariest feeling not knowing what would happen. I was overwhelmed with stress, fear, and anxiety. I would call the hospital every day, multiple times, to check on her status, vitals, and any other information that could give me a sense of security, that things would be OK,” said Macias.

“We waited patiently for convalescent plasma. We waited a total of eight days but it never arrived. I don’t know if the convalescent plasma would have helped, but the lack of resources and planning for this virus has robbed me of the opportunity to know if that plasma would have worked,” she said.

Linda Macias sits down on a wooden spiral staircase at her home in Brownsville, Texas Friday, July 31, 2020, as Linda reminisces over a black and white photograph of her late mother 46-year-old Maria Herlinda Olvera who passed away from COVID-19 Friday, July 17, 2020. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

Macias described the loss of her mother this month as the hardest thing she’s ever been through. “What gives me peace is knowing that my mother loved God and was a devoted follower. She’s in a beautiful place with her father. She always wanted the best for us, so I will continue to be strong and allow her love and life to transpire in everything that I do,” said Macias.

Dr. Beverly Zavaleta, a hospitalist working on the convalescent plasma study at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville, said preliminary data on the effectiveness of the treatment is not yet available, but that doctors have begun to notice trends.

“In our experience, if you can get the plasma before the disease gets too severe, that is when it’s most helpful. The reason we need people to donate plasma is because when we have a shortage of plasma, we can’t get enough plasma to enough patients fast enough,” she explained.

“There’s a golden window when we can give the plasma and it really seems to help, and people start to get better within about 12 to 24 hours. That window is within their first few days of admission to the hospital. They’re on oxygen, but they’re not in the ICU yet. They’re not intubated or on a ventilator.”

That being said, doctors do not refuse anyone plasma. If the treatment is not available for an eligible patient, it means doctors are having trouble sourcing the convalescent plasma from local blood banks. According to Dr. Zavaleta, Valley Baptist has been at 125 percent capacity for a period of four to six weeks. The study calls for one to two doses of the plasma per patient.

Locally, there has been reluctance to donate convalescent plasma, stemming in part from misunderstanding about how the treatment works, as well as rumors that the plasma collected isn’t staying in the Valley. DHR Health Institute for Research and Development’s CEO and president Dr. Sohail Rao said those rumors aren’t true, and specifically, that the hospital is not profiting from the collection of plasma through the study.

As for whether the experimental treatment is safe, doctors are reassuring patients that the plasma goes through a thorough screening process, is collected 28 days after a patient has recovered in accordance with CDC guidelines, and that it cannot re-infect patients who are already sick with the virus. Dr. Rao said recent drives organized in Brownsville showed an overwhelming turnout in support of the program. “I think it’s a reflection of greater awareness of the problem — the fact that we are an epicenter now in Texas.”

“The plasma is given free of charge to the patient. We are investing money in getting plasma from the donors by giving them a stipend, by opening up a call center which includes 10 people, by having two MDs involved in this particular process, and analysts who are involved on the back end completing all of the data that is required,” said Rao.

“The plasma stays here. We have storage freezers and the plasma is tagged and stored in those facilities. Whenever we need it, they get distributed.”

In Brownsville, Macias wants to see local leaders do more. Rallying the community to organize further drives, creating public awareness campaigns, and obtaining the funding and resources to develop more programs and studies would be of great aid to families with infected and critically ill loved ones.

“The study coordinates with Vitalant — the blood goes to both Cameron County and Hidalgo. Nonetheless, it blows my mind that Brownsville makes up the majority of Cameron County. And we have blood banks, we have a university, we have doctors and nurses who could run their own program. I’ve spoken to leaders, and they seem lost,” she said.

Her sentiment was echoed by Dr. Rao, who has been in communication with local leaders, though participating hospitals appear to be the ones pushing awareness on the treatment. “I think they can do more,” he said.

In Brownsville on Friday, Mayor Trey Mendez reported a total of 181 confirmed COVID-related deaths in the city since April. He noted that Brownsville has another 171 deaths on backlog and that it was yet to be determined how many of those deaths were actually caused by the virus.

The latest report available from Cameron County Public Health by press time recorded another 816 positive cases county-wide on Friday.

The talk that blood banks in Brownsville, as well as other operations that are collecting convalescent plasma for commercial profit, are not distributing those units to local patients, appears to be a very real concern.

Dr. Rao speculated that plasma collected outside of the study via commercial operations is leaving the Valley. “None of the hospitals locally are buying it, so they must be sending it elsewhere,” Rao said, adding that local hospitals have regularly sourced plasma from outside of the region due to local shortage.

Spokesperson for Vitalant in Cameron County Sonia Guajardo confirmed that plasma collected by the company stays here. “One hundred percent of the blood does stay here in the Rio Grande Valley at our local hospitals. Not just now, but throughout the years. The same thing is happening with the convalescent plasma. There is a waiting list and the convalescent plasma is in high demand; it all stays here,” she said.

Macias emphasized her gratitude for those who have donated and are adhering to recommendations in order to keep others safe. “I’m proud of Brownsville and the proactiveness and willingness to help. You continue to be my heroes. I humbly ask for everyone to continue following guidelines, and now, to donate plasma,” she said.

Recovered COVID-19 patients interested in donating convalescent plasma to help others in the region recover can reach DHR’s new hotline at (956) 362-2390.