Local blood centers struggle to stay ahead of need
By Kris Leonhardt
CENTRAL WISCONSIN – As medical facilities deal with an influx of rescheduled treatments and those affected by COVID-19, blood banks are struggling to keep ahead of the need for donated blood.
“There is always a need for blood. It is making it, of course, more difficult now with COVID,” said Emily Jolin, administrative director of Blood Center of Northcentral Wisconsin, who supplies blood in Marathon, Portage, Wood, Langlade, and Taylor counties for a majority of the Aspirus health care system.
“We are also trying to collect the COVID convalescent plasma from people who have had COVID and it has been at least 14 days since they’ve last had a symptom. Their plasma might contain antibodies to help people currently fighting COVID. So, there is another product that we are looking for on top of the usual blood.
“It seems like it gets harder every year to get blood donors in.”
Old and new challenges
Jolin said that blood centers have already been struggling with dwindling donations.
“The population that is part of our blood donor population is aging and there aren’t as many of the younger people filling in or coming up,” she explained.
But the advent of COVID-19 has added more challenges.
“In a pre-COVID world, we usually ran a mobile (drive) five or six days a week, probably ran seven or eight mobile drives a week. Now, we are probably down to about four or five,” said Becky Brown, Blood Program account representative for Versiti/Blood Center of Wisconsin, which supplies a majority of the blood locally to the Marshfield Clinic Health System, as well as some to the Aspirus system.
“Because of COVID, I would say 30-40 percent of our collection (is down) from our mobile blood drives, especially targeting high schools, colleges, and businesses. If you think about that, we’ve lost a great deal of collection opportunities because most of the businesses have people that are now working remotely from home, so we are not holding the blood drives on site like we did.”
Brown added that donors are also hesitant to come in, though all blood centers are using precautions, including: masks, taking temperatures, sanitation, and distancing,
“Our faithful group of donors have continued to donate throughout this whole pandemic, but where we are struggling is really getting those new donors to come out,” Brown added.
But, she says that the largest issue is finding locations that will allow them to host drives.
“We’ve had many churches close down to us, because they are not having services,” she said. “I’ve lost a lot of businesses… that was a big thing for us, especially in the Marshfield area.”
Along with decreased donations, the centers are seeing an increased need.
“When the pandemic hit, the hospitals and everyone pretty much closed down. They weren’t doing any surgeries – anything above and beyond an emergency – I would say for about a month and a half,” recalled Brown.
“It started about the end of April; we were to ramp up collections again, because hospitals were going to go back to starting to schedule elective surgeries.
“From that point on, we have been in full collection mode, trying to collect as much as we can.
“Surgeries are full on again. Our hospital partners are using more blood than they ever have, so the need is always there.”
And, Brown said that every type of blood is needed.
“Every blood type, sometimes we are down to a one- to two- day supply of Ro blood, which is the most popular. The highest population is O positive blood, and O negative is the universal donor, so those blood types; we are always running on a really, really tight margin.
“Overall through this whole pandemic, we have needed every single blood type and it continues.”
“Beginning Aug. 17 we started doing COVID antibody testing on all of our successful donations,” Brown said.
The testing was initiated for two reasons, to help patients determine if they had already been exposed to the virus and for the collection of COVID convalescent plasma.
“That is a big push for us right now, to find recovered COVID patients that are willing to donate their convalescent plasma, and we do expect that it is going to be an increase, that we are going to have that need. And, obviously with the uptick in cases – especially in the state of Wisconsin – that’s one thing that we are really focusing on.”
COVID Convalescent Plasma
“The convalescent plasma contains antibodies, which are part of the immune system and basically lock into a specific foreign human body invader, in this case the SARS-2-COVID virus, and basically recognizes it, lock onto it, and then destroys the pathogen,” explained Brian Scheibe, lab manager for Aspirus Wausau Hospital.
“The goal is that since the recipient patient has not yet created their own response to COVID and are usually too ill to come up with an immune response, by adding the convalescent plasma, we are speeding an immune response until their body is able to mount an attack on this virus. So in basis, we are trying to improve their recovery. What we have seen is that the patient will receive one to two dosages of convalescent plasma, similar to a blood transfusion. Each unit is approximately 200 mL (little less than 8 ounces).”
Plasma is collected through the process of plasmapheresis, which can take up to 90 minutes while plasma is separated from the red cells and other cellular components. Before the plasma is collected, the blood is tested to determine the concentration, or titer, of the antibody present.
“The higher the titer, the more antibody and in theory the better plasma. The blood center then labels the unit of plasma as ‘high titer’ or ‘low titer.’ This then follows the recipient when given, so there is a determination of what dosage was given to the patient and how effective it may be,” he added.
Scheibe said that convalescent plasma treatment has been around since the 20th century
“Mayo initiated this treatment and had started a study to determine how effective was this treatment shortly after the outbreak,” he said.
“The government was allowing other facilities to participate within this study as long as they followed Mayo’s guidelines and reported outcomes. We were in the process of starting this study here when the federal government released this treatment as an Emergency Use Authorization (or EUA). This basically states that under the EUA and supported by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, that treatment facilities could justify using this treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. They also state that this is due that there are no adequate, approved or available alternatives. By doing this, we do not have to report back to Mayo outcomes, but at least in our facility, we are still monitoring patient outcomes.”
Scheibe said that while this is still experimental, outcomes look promising.
“…from what I have read (that it has lessened the severity of symptoms and reduced days of symptoms) but it does vary between patients and varies with outcomes, no two patients are alike. I believe with the labeling of titers, that in retrospect after the pandemic has lessened, they will ask those that have administered the convalescent plasma, to see how effective it really was and which titer was better than others,” he explained.
“As with normal blood donation, we find it hard to find patients that have the rare blood type (AB and B) and also B positive for COVID antibodies. Also a barrier is that if you give convalescent plasma to a patient and they recover and they want to donate convalescent plasma, there is a three month timeframe that they cannot donate and studies show that the higher titer of antibodies decrease over months.”
For more on COVID Convalescent Plasma, visit https://thefightisinus.org.
How to donate
The Blood Center of Northcentral Wisconsin has a fixed site in downtown Wausau at 211 Forest Street. The center takes donors Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Versiti/Blood Center of Wisconsin has one fixed location in Marshfield at 508 North Central Avenue, Suite 101, with hours Monday-Saturday.
Upcoming mobile blood drives will be held on Oct. 22, 8 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., at the Marshfield Clinic Health System Laird Center, Erdman Lobby, Marshfield; Oct. 23, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., at the St. Paul’s Lutheran, Junction City; Oct. 23, 12:30-5:30 p.m., by the Nekoosa Area First Responders, 416 Crestview Ln, Nekoosa; Oct. 27, 3:30-6:30 p.m., Stratford VFW, Stratford; Oct. 28, 2-7 p.m., at the East Junior High School, Wisconsin Rapids; Nov. 1, 7:30 a.m. – noon, at St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church, Almond, www.save3lives.org.
For more information, visit the Blood Center of Northcentral Wisconsin website at https://www.bcnwi.org or the Versiti/Blood Center of Wisconsin website at www.versiti.org.