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Duluth hospitals pursue plasma treatment for COVID-19 patients

The hospitals are investigating whether the treatment works and to what extent.

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Gary Meader / News Tribune

Duluth health care facilities are calling for people who have recovered from COVID-19 to donate plasma.

The plasma will be used to treat people who have the virus as part of a Mayo Clinic investigational trial. Essentia Health and St. Luke's recently started using the convalescent plasma treatment, but its effects and whether it works are not fully known.

"Anecdotally, there's been lots of positive reports, but my fear is people tell us the positive things and we don't hear about the negative things," said Dr. Jed Gorlin, Memorial Blood Center's medical director and vice president of medical and quality affairs. "Going by anecdotal reports alone here leads to this sort of nonsense you got with hydroxychloroquine, which clearly didn't work ."

Plasma from donors has antibodies that may help fight off the virus quicker, as these antibodies are what likely primarily helped the donor recover from the virus. People receive these antibodies via plasma transfusion.

To determine the extent of this treatment's impact, Essentia and St. Luke's enrolled in the Mayo Clinic's Expanded Use Program . Over 2,000 facilities have also enrolled in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration program, resulting in more than 7,000 people infused.


"I think it's nice to be able to offer this cutting-edge treatment to folks in our community," said Dr. Amanda Noska, an infectious disease physician at Essentia.

Essentia has given plasma treatment to three patients as of Thursday, Noska said. It's giving the treatment only to those who opt in and have a threatening case of coronavirus or a lung disease.

Like Essentia, St. Luke's is also enrolled in the program. Although, in theory, it has some promise, they don't know how effective it will be, according to Dr. Andrew Thompson of St. Luke's.

Early and theoretical data suggests plasma treatment could be helpful, Noska said, but "we're still very early on and we're still actively pursuing this with rigorous science."

"(The) treatments have shown in small studies some promise that it could be helpful and therapeutic to give to patients. But with that said, we don't have absolute proof that it is effective in every patient," she said.

Risks associated with transfusions include lung injuries or reaction; none of Essentia's patients have reacted adversely.

Noska emphasized that there are risks with nearly everything they do.

"We've so far been very lucky in that they've been very well-tolerated both within our hospital and nationally. There's very low reports of adverse outcomes from these transfusions," she said.


Plasma treatment has been used to treat severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and influenza — all of which have various degrees of success, Noska said.

A certain parking spots are reserved for donors at Memorial Blood Center in the Burning Tree Plaza in Duluth. There’s a call for recovered coronavirus patients to donate plasma, as their antibodies can help people with serious cases of the virus. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Memorial Blood Centers, which has a Duluth location and several in the Twin Cities, is supplying the Mayo Clinic with plasma from donors, said Gorlin. The center has collected 8,000 units of plasma so far, and Gorlin anticipates that will continue growing.

"We already had the tools to collect plasma. So, for us, it wasn't a big change. It's just more customers," he said.

Much like blood donation, people donate blood through a needle. But, when donating plasma, donors' red blood cells are returned to their bodies, resulting in fewer side effects, Gorlin said.

The treatment may be more helpful for high-risk populations, like those with cancer or older people with heart conditions, he said.

To ensure safety of donors and staff, MBC is enforcing social distancing guidelines, spacing out appointments and limiting building capacity.


Up to three units of plasma can be collected per donation. Up to 12 people can be helped if a person donates four times, which the center is asking for them to do. People who have recovered from the virus and are eligible blood donors can schedule an appointment to donate plasma on MBC's website, mbc.org/cpdonor .

A man walks into Memorial Blood Center in the Burning Tree Plaza in Duluth. There’s a call for recovered coronavirus patients to donate plasma, as their antibodies can help people with serious cases of the virus. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

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