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Lynbrook woman once 'gasping for air' now recovering after plasma transfusion

Convalescent plasma therapy has been used for years to treat other diseases, and although unproven, there are signs it may be useful against COVID-19. Long Islanders with COVID-19 antibodies are donating their plasma to help. Credit: Newsday staff

Jennifer Woodard had spent nearly a week at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside with COVID-19 and wasn’t getting any better. Then she received a transfusion of blood plasma donated by someone who had recovered from the disease.

“The next morning, I woke up and I literally felt like someone had given me like a burst of energy,” she said.

The Lynbrook woman is one of hundreds of COVID-19 patients across Long Island who have received plasma transfusions, both as an attempt to help individual patients, and as part of studies to determine whether the improvement of patients like Woodard is because of the plasma or some other reason.

“Anecdotally, there are some patients that have done well” after transfusions, said Dr. Aaron Glatt, South Nassau’s chairman of medicine and chief of infectious diseases. “Unfortunately, there are other patients that have not.”

If plasma is beneficial, as preliminary data from South Nassau and limited studies on plasma treatment suggest, the question is “what that benefit is, and how big a benefit it is, and for who it is beneficial,” Glatt said.

People who contract the coronavirus produce antibodies to fight the infection. Antibodies remain in blood plasma after recovery, and scientists believe that if that plasma — called convalescent plasma — is transfused into the blood of patients currently with COVID-19, the antibodies may speed recovery.

When Woodard, 45, arrived at South Nassau on April 15, she was “gasping for air.”

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“It was this burning sensation whenever I tried to breathe,” she said.

Woodard was admitted with pneumonia in both lungs. The oxygen mask she wore helped her breathe, but, she said, she wasn’t improving.

Yet the morning after the transfusion, “It’s like someone woke me up and I was like, ‘Wow, I feel good today,’ ” she said.

That night, for the first time, she got out of bed and walked to the bathroom and back on her own. Gradually, she was able to do laps around her room. Woodard was released April 28. She is convinced the convalescent plasma jump-started her recovery, which she is continuing at home.

The theory is convalescent plasma neutralizes the virus in plasma recipients until that person’s body can create enough of its own antibodies, said Dr. Elliott Bennett-Guerrero, vice chair of clinical research in the anesthesiology department of the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. If it works, it is believed to be most effective early in the infection, he said.

Bennett-Guerrero is leading a clinical trial at Stony Brook in which 400 patients will receive convalescent plasma and 100 will get plasma without antibodies to the coronavirus.

Typically, clinical trials study equal numbers of patients, but Stony Brook is giving 80% of the participants the plasma because there is no proven treatment for COVID-19, and “in desperate times, we want to increase the likelihood that more people may benefit if it is effective,” Bennett-Guerrero said.

Stony Brook will monitor each patient up to 90 days after release from the hospital, he said.

Bennett-Guerrero said despite promising signs, it’s still unclear how helpful plasma treatment is in fighting viruses. An overview of convalescent plasma studies involving other viruses published this month in the journal Transfusion found that some showed the treatment as effective in treating viral infections such as H1N1, SARS and Ebola, but others did not, and large randomized clinical trials are needed.

Mount Sinai South Nassau, as well as Northwell Health and Catholic Health Services of Long Island, are supplying plasma to patients outside clinical trials, under a federally approved national program overseen by the Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic, which is collecting data.

A clinical trial is “the gold standard” for assessing a treatment, but it also takes longer to set up, and studying patients outside one gets the plasma to patients sooner, Glatt said.

Even so, South Nassau is comparing patients who have received the treatment and those who haven’t, focusing on people with similar health backgrounds, said Dr. Adhi Sharma, chief medical officer of South Nassau.

“If there's a huge difference between them, that would certainly be strongly supportive of this as a good therapy,” Glatt said.

There are nearly 100 patients at South Nassau who have been on the plasma treatment, he said.

Six Mount Sinai system hospitals in New York City are making similar comparisons and hope to merge their data with South Nassau’s, said Dr. Nicole Bouvier, an infectious diseases expert who is coleading the convalescent plasma program for the Mount Sinai Health System.

NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola is participating in a clinical trial that includes the NYU Grossman School of Medicine in Manhattan and involves 300 patients, half of whom will receive convalescent plasma and the other half a saline solution, said Dr. Mary O’Keeffe, a hematologist and oncologist who is leading the study at NYU Winthrop.

Patients who don’t qualify for the clinical trial — the focus is on patients early in their infection — can receive plasma under the Mayo Clinic program, she said.

“We want the plasma available to patients, but we also want to have data to know if it is helpful, neutral or harmful to these patients,” and the best way to determine that is a clinical trial, O’Keeffe said. 

Bennett-Guerrero said although clinical trials take time — the Stony Brook study likely won’t be complete until the fall — it’s not clear if there will ever be a vaccine for the coronavirus, or how well other potential treatments will fare.

“If in the fall we determine that this works, and there’s a large second wave in the fall, we’ll know this is something worth doing in patients,” he said. “On the other hand, if we show it’s not effective at all, then there will be no reason to do it if there is a large second wave, and we can devote scarce resources to other potential treatments.”

Oxford scientists say an experimental vaccine that appears to be effective in monkeys could, if it is shown to work in humans, be produced by September. But others, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, considered the top U.S. infectious disease expert, are skeptical a vaccine will be ready that early, although Fauci said he is optimistic some type of vaccine against COVID-19 will be found, news reports said.

It takes up to three weeks after infection for most people to develop sufficient antibodies, so the convalescent plasma supply is growing as more people become eligible to donate, Glatt said.

Dr. Daniel Sacolick, medical director for Mount Sinai Doctors Long Island Five Towns in Hewlett, which conducts blood tests that determine whether a potential donor has enough antibodies, said his office has been deluged with more than 1,100 inquires.

“They’ve been calling me nonstop, day and night, sending me emails, texts, that they want to be able to donate plasma and how they can participate in this program,” he said.

Those with enough antibodies are sent to a New York Blood Center site. There, a machine spins the blood donation and siphons off the plasma, said Andrea Cefarelli, senior executive director for donor recruitment and marketing.

The typical donation of 600 milliliters of plasma can benefit three patients, she said.

Victoria Siegel, 62, a professor of nursing at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, donated plasma for a second time on Tuesday.

She wasn’t gravely ill with COVID-19, but “I was very, very afraid I was going to lose my husband,” who was hospitalized for eight days with the disease. Siegel said that as she donated, she thought of him and of a friend who lost five family members to COVID-19.

Christopher Yackel, 47, of Center Moriches, got sick in late February, so he has been able to donate five times and plans to do so the maximum eight.

“I was fortunate enough where I didn’t have to go to the hospital” for COVID-19, Yackel said. But he knows that COVID-19 patients are alone in no-visitors-allowed hospitals, desperate for help.

“How could you, knowing that, not want to help,” he said.

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