Looking for heroes: Promising new treatment for coronavirus has long history of helping

Patients who have already fought the virus and won are considered convalescent, and convalescent plasma adds a powerful weapon to the mix.
FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Doctors treating COVID-19 patients at hospitals around the Valley have a new tool at their disposal and it's got a promising history.

The big new hope for fighting the coronavirus is an old friend used as early as the 19th century to fight measles, tetanus, and whooping cough.

"And then more recently for some of the viral respiratory infections," said UCSF Fresno infectious disease specialist Dr. Elham Rahmati. "Several of the influenzas and also even close relatives - other coronaviruses - such as SARS and MERS."

Plasma is the yellow liquid left over when you filter red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets out of your blood.

It's mostly just water, salts, and enzymes, but patients who have already fought the virus and won are considered convalescent, and convalescent plasma adds a powerful weapon to the mix.

"What it has is a very rich supply of antibodies and this is exactly what we need," said Dr. Rahmati.

She's cleared to start treating patients at Community Medical Centers with convalescent plasma and expects to start in just a few days as part of a huge study through the Mayo Clinic.

She'll be using it on patients already in ICU or who seem headed there in a hurry.

But to save patients, she needs heroes.

"This product cannot be just produced in a pharmaceutical company, you know, manufacturers," Dr. Rahmati said. "This is something we need to replenish the supplies of were using it for our patients."

Fresno County's first coronavirus patient, Jerry Hall, donated his plasma last month, one of about 15 donors so far.

And Visalia's Kaweah Delta Medical Center was the first in the Valley to treat patients with convalescent plasma.

Dr. Benfie Liu was one of the first donors.

She quarantined for more than two weeks and came out wanting to save more patients.

"When you know there are limited options available to coronavirus patients, it was something I really wanted to do," said the Kaweah Delta Medical Center emergency room medical resident.

Recovered patients can donate through the Central California Blood Bank, but they have to wait until they haven't had symptoms for 28 days.

The blood bank was the first in the country to treat convalescent plasma with a special process making sure it doesn't carry any other viruses or bacteria, so it's as safe as possible for the sickest patients.

If it works like it has in the past, every donation from a recovered patient could save an average of three lives.
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