MCALLEN, Texas – As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the Rio Grande Valley and hospitals brim with new patients, plasma donations from people who have recovered from the virus are desperately needed. 

The convalescent plasma, which contains COVID-19 antibodies, is being used as an experimental treatment to fight the deadly disease. At the Doctors Hospital at Renaissance Health Institute for Research and Development, medical researchers hope to mitigate coronavirus symptoms in high-acuity patients and ultimately develop a vaccine. Ten Valley hospitals are participating in the clinical trial.

Vitalant (formerly United Blood Services) has partnered with the institute to collect the plasma. Frank Esparza, regional director of the organization, says, however, that the demand is exponentially exceeding the supply. Esparza estimates that on average the blood bank receives requests for about 200 units of plasma a day, while collecting only between 10 to 15 units. With a pool of over 14,000 recovered individuals across the Valley, a much higher intake would be expected. 

“We should have more donors coming in … when we got thousands recovering,” said Esparza. 

Sohail Rao, president and CEO of the DHR Health Institute for Research and Development, is also alarmed by the figures. So far, close to 800 patients have been treated with convalescent plasma, the majority of which came from the outside the region. And, although the information is anecdotal at this stage, Rao says the therapy’s effects are undeniable. If used early, before a patient is on a ventilator, the plasma has been shown to delay, and, in some cases, reverse the disease progression while building up a patient’s immunity. He warns continued shortages will leave patients cut off from this possibly living-saving treatment.

To combat this, Vitalant and the DHR Health Institute for Research and Development have hosted remote plasma drives to reach communities without a nearby a blood bank. With social distancing protocols in place, only 3 patients can be safely seen per hour, so the drives are limited to about 18 to 21 people. Still, Esparza says that 60-80 units of plasma can be collected from just one event. Their most recent event in Brownsville saw all their time slots filled. They hope to do the same on Saturday, Aug. 1, at the Starr County Memorial Hospital in Rio Grande City. 

To donate, participants must be 18 years or over and wait 28 days from testing positive and experiencing their last symptoms. Donors will be prescreened for the presence of COVID-19 antibodies in their blood before scheduling an appointment with Vitalant. All the plasma collected stays in the Valley and is allocated to the hospitals contributing to the study.

For people on the fence or worried about coming out, Rao assures them that the process is safe and, in some respects, more stable than a regular blood donation. He also asks that people reflect on their own fortune in recovering from the virus when weighing their decision.

“I think those who have been infected understand the enormity of this disease, and they are lucky that they have actually come out of this unscathed,” said Rao. “… Think about those who are going through this particular ordeal, are hospitalized and progressing through mechanical ventilation with no real idea as to what the outcome is going to be … You have the means and the mode to help them. Pay it forward.”

For more information, visit the DHR Health Institute for Research and Development website.

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