Alex McNall has donated blood four times since March, most recently at a Red Cross blood drive in Janesville earlier this month.
This last time, he hopes he has something extra to give, something that is in high demand by hospitals for treatment of COVID-19 patients.
The 21-year-old Carthage College junior had COVID-19 in October.
In August, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of antibodies in the plasma of people who have recovered from the virus—known as convalescent plasma—to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
“Right now, I’m waiting to hear if I do have the antibodies,” McNall said. “Knowing that I can possibly help someone else can make a positive out of a negative situation.”
The Red Cross tests blood, platelets and plasma donations for COVID-19 antibodies to identify people who might qualify to be convalescent-plasma donors.
Mark Mounajjed, an infectious-disease doctor with Mercyhealth, said he has used convalescent plasma in the past.
But he cited a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in November showing that patients with severe COVID-19 were not helped by the antibodies.
He called results of the recent study disappointing and said convalescent plasma “clearly doesn’t work that well.”
Alison Schwartz, an infectious-disease doctor with SSM Health, called convalescent plasma “one of the tools in our tool kit” for hospitalized patients.
“It is something we are still learning about,” Schwartz said. “We know, based on all the data, that it is generally safe. But not every patient may be a candidate for it.”
Demand up for plasma
Still, blood centers are feeling the demand.
Requests from hospitals for convalescent plasma rose significantly toward the end of October and into November, said Amanda Hess of the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center.
Demand has risen along with the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
“We have been having a hard time keeping up with it,” Hess said. “We have been importing it from other blood centers to meet the demand. We are working to spread the word about the need.”
The Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center provides blood to SSM Health hospitals in the area, including Janesville.
“It’s important for people to understand this is still an investigational treatment,” Hess said. “There simply is not enough data through clinical trials. But it is one of only a few options doctors have, which is driving the demand.”
Laura McGuire of the American Red Cross in Madison said it is important that COVID-19 patients have access to all treatment options, including convalescent plasma.
“The Red Cross has a critical need for convalescent plasma,” McGuire said. “An increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations has caused the Red Cross to distribute a record number of convalescent plasma products in the past month, leading to a shortage of types AB and B plasma.”
McGuire encouraged all people, not just those who have had COVID-19, to give blood during the pandemic to ensure there are no shortages.
She called the blood supply “sufficient right now.”
However, blood is a perishable product with a shelf life of only 42 days, she said, and platelets have a shelf life of only five days.
McGuire said safety measures are in place for blood donors.
Each Red Cross blood drive and donation center “follows the highest standards of safety and infection control,” she said.
A rough time
McNall does not know how he got infected.
“I was always careful with whom I hung around with,” he said. “But it is easy for people not to know they have it. There are a lot of asymptomatic cases.”
He became sick with bad body aches, shortness of breath and fatigue during the second week of October.
He woke on a Monday with a fever of more than 101. The next day, he drove home to Janesville from Kenosha, where he attends college, and received word that his COVID-19 rapid test was positive.
“I didn’t stop anywhere,” McNall said. “I went straight to my room, where I stayed for the next 10 days.”
He called the time “pretty rough.”
“The hardest part was the isolation,” McNall said. “My family was supportive, but there was only so much they could do because I didn’t want them to get sick.”
Still, he believes he was fortunate.
“I know there are people in the hospital and on ventilators,” McNall said. “I want to do anything I can to help out.”