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Mayo Clinic hopes more testing leads to more plasma donations for COVID-19 patients

Plasma therapy is rapidly expanding and showing promise for COVID-19.

With more Minnesotans gaining access to coronavirus testing, the Red Cross and Mayo Clinic hope it leads to more donations of convalescent plasma.

"It's not doing any harm and we believe we may be doing some good," said Dr. Michael Joyner, who is leading a national convalescent plasma study at the Mayo Clinic. "We're going to try to figure out exactly how much good we're doing, and under what circumstances, in the coming weeks and months."

Hospitals across the country have been asking recovered COVID-19 patients to donate plasma since April. The effort caught the attention of Laurel Fischbach, who began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms during a ski trip to Vail, Colorado in March.

"I started uncontrollably coughing, and that unfortunately went on for approximately two months," she said.

Fischbach was among Minnesota's first wave of recovered COVID-19 patients to donate plasma for the Mayo Clinic study. She tested positive for antibodies and found a donation site through the Red Cross.

"It's really about heading this virus off in the best way we can," Fischbach said.

A trial this month showed convalescent plasma transfusions are safe for COVID-19 patients. Dr. Joyner says another trial now underway will help determine its effectiveness. In the meantime, hospitals are reporting encouraging results and plasma's history is on their side.

Dr. Joyner: "Historically, if you look at the use of convalescent plasma prior to World War II, a huge amount of it was prophylactic."

Kent Erdahl: "So, based on the history, there's good reason to believe that it could be used to prevent COVID?" 

Dr. Joyner: "Correct, or to suppress outbreaks."

Even if it proves effective, Dr. Joyner says plasma poses a logistical challenge, due to it's reliance on donations. Thankfully, he says increased testing and cooperation across the country are making him feel optimistic.

The study has logged more than 12,000 transfusions nationwide, and 500-600 people are now donating plasma each day. 

"Seven or eight people could be helped by one person," Dr. Joyner said. "What we've done so far probably exceeds even the most optimistic expectations by two or three fold."

As the trials continue, Fischbach says she's happy to do her part.

"They just actually called me last week and I'm on the books to donate again on June 2nd," she said. "Give people some peace of mind as we go forward that there are many, many people out there that have already been through this and have survived. We're all in this together."