For COVID-19 survivor Jonathan Vuylsteke, donating convalescent plasma is a simple way to give back to the community as well as fight the battle against the pandemic.
Vuylsteke, 26, of Honolulu, is not sure where he caught the new coronavirus, but suspects it was during a summer trip from Hawaii to North Carolina and back to visit his girlfriend. Fortunately, his symptoms were mild and his recovery quick.
When Kaiser Permanente referred his name to the Blood Bank of Hawaii as a potential convalescent plasma donor, he did not think twice about it.
“I said, ‘Yeah, of course,’” he said, recalling the spike in cases at the time. “I survived this, and the worst is to come, so let me try to help some people and contribute, since I was able to recover and my blood plasma could save people on the brink.”
Vuylsteke donated convalescent blood plasma as soon as he was able to in August, and has since returned to donate two more times. A repeat donation can be given after a 28-day period.
Convalescent plasma, which contains antibodies from recovered COVID-19 patients, is currently considered an experimental treatment used in clinical trials, and authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Since Hawaii’s convalescent plasma program was launched in late April, the blood bank has collected more than 500 doses from approximately 121 recovered patients who are local residents. In May the first recovered coronavirus patient to receive convalescent plasma therapy in Hawaii was discharged from The Queen’s Medical Center.
The pool of potential convalescent plasma donors has since grown substantially, and Blood Bank of Hawaii CEO Kim-Anh Nguyen is hoping more will come forward ahead of the upcoming holidays, which is when donations tend to slow down.
“Those patients that just recovered from the surge in August, please, please, come out to donate, if you can, and let’s build our stockpile now for the mountain that I’m very afraid Hawaii will experience,” Nguyen said. “We’re so good at preparing because we have hurricanes, and because of where we are, we’re so good at stocking up and being ready, and I want us to be ready.”
Nguyen said though studies are still underway, the data looks promising. One study, for instance, found there was some improvement for COVID-19 patients, particularly when used early, in the first three days of their hospitalization, and before they were in intensive care. Studies, however, are ongoing, and the data still needs to be corroborated.
The National Institutes of Health in September said preliminary observational studies indicated the treatment might improve outcomes among severely ill, hospitalized COVID-19 patients but that it would conduct more rigorous studies with well-controlled, randomized trials as needed.
Hawaii has managed to provide convalescent plasma to all hospitals that have requested it, according to Nguyen, including nearly 1,000 doses since the end of April.
During the surge of cases in August, some convalescent plasma was brought in from states such as New York to supplement the local supply. But Hawaii has since been able to fill the current need with local donors.
Nguyen is hoping to keep it that way, particularly as she braces for possible holiday surges. At the same time, as cases dramatically increase on the mainland, she expects demand for convalescent plasma to grow.
She has heard of some patients in mainland cities who have had to wait three to seven days for convalescent plasma.
“We don’t want that to happen to us here in Hawaii,” she said. “We here in Hawaii need to help our own community. If we run out of convalescent plasma in Hawaii, it might be harder for us now to get plasma from the mainland because they have other states that need it even more. So we really need to support our community.”
There have been 56 repeat donors, according to Nguyen. The donation process takes between an hour to an hour and a half, a little longer than a regular blood donation, but the needle is smaller, she said.
One donation, on average, results in enough doses to help three to four patients.
To be eligible, convalescent plasma donors must have tested positive for COVID-19 with lab-confirmed documentation and be symptom-free for 28 days, while meeting standard plasma donor requirements. Convalescent plasma donations are handled at the blood bank’s Dillingham Donor Center due to protocols and staffing requirements.
Once collected, the convalescent plasma can be frozen and stored for up to a year prior to use.
“I would like to extend a special thank you to these donors,” said Nguyen. “If we could take all of these patients these donors have saved and put them in a room, this would be probably a room the size of a convention center. I really want to thank all of these donors for all the lives that they have saved.”
A coalition made up of The Queen’s Health Systems, Hawaii Pacific Health, Kaiser Permanente, the state Department of Health, University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine and other clinical laboratories has helped find potential donors and identified patients who could benefit from the plasma transfusions.
When the program collecting the convalescent plasma was first launched in Hawaii in late April, the number of daily new cases hovered at around just four, and the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state was just above 600.
Since then Hawaii’s one-day record of new confirmed coronavirus cases reached a high of 355 in mid-August, with a seven-day average of about 85. The number of confirmed cases in Hawaii since the start of the pandemic has surpassed 17,000, and thousands have since recovered and been released from isolation.
Vuylsteke, who recently moved back to Hawaii, said he was careful about wearing a mask and maintaining his social distance at home as well as during the trip. There were times, however, when he took off his mask to eat.
Upon his return from his trip in early July, he took the precaution of self- quarantining in a separate room and wore a mask in his parents’ home, but began coming down with symptoms.
For Vuylsteke there was no fever, cough or difficulty breathing, but a loss of smell and taste.
“It was very strange and acute,” he said. “I could breathe normally, but there was no smell or taste. It was a super-weird experience. … I was eating food, and I knew what it should taste like.”
He called his health provider, Kaiser, to get tested, and the results came back positive the next day.
It took about 12 days for him to recover, he said, without having to be hospitalized. His sense of smell and taste returned in following weeks, eventually.
He said he was full of gratitude, and relieved he did not get his parents, who are at higher risk, sick with the coronavirus.
“The reason we have to be careful is for those we care about, not necessarily for ourselves,” he said. “It would have just crushed me if I had brought the illness back to my home. … This is an unprecedented thing that everyone is going through. We need to bear down because of the people we care about, the people who are most at risk.”
Vuylsteke said his advice to others is to take this pandemic seriously. While he empathizes with those who are tired of restrictions, no one is immune, he said.
“Take it seriously and wear the mask,” he said. “If we all bear down, if we wear masks, then we can all get through this together.”
Interested in donating convalescent plasma?
>> Call: Blood Bank of Hawaii’s hotline, 848-4706
>> Email: COVID email@example.com
>> Visit: bbh.org/convalescentplasma