Red Cross Seeking Donors to Address Convalescent Plasma Shortage

Antibody-containing plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients can help boost currently ill patients' immunity; blood donation opportunities scheduled locally

By Maggie Dresser
Kacey White draws blood from Mark Voelker at a Red Cross blood drive at the Church at Creston in Creston on Jan. 6, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As most of the population waits to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, the American Red Cross’s demand for convalescent plasma, which helps drive immunity for sick coronavirus patients, continues to increase.

Convalescent plasma, or plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients, may contain antibodies that could treat currently ill COVID-19 patients, and the therapy is being evaluated for a possible treatment.

“That’s the product that helps people who are seriously ill with COVID-19,” Matt Ochsner of the American Red Cross said.

The antibodies in the convalescent plasma can potentially recognize and neutralize SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as other components that may contribute to an immune response.

In addition to demand for convalescent plasma, the Red Cross always has a demand for whole blood, which is tested for antibodies and can be separated into a convalescent plasma product if antibodies are found.

Despite the convalescent plasma shortage, Ochsner has noticed more donations since the pandemic started, and he says the opportunity to get a COVID-19 antibody test and a general desire to help others have likely contributed to the increase in blood donors in 2020.

“I think there are people that are curious to see if they’ve been exposed to COVID and some people come in to donate because they want to help others,” he said.

But despite the active blood donations, the country is still facing a convalescent plasma shortage as hospital distributions have increased 250% nationally since October, according to Red Cross officials.

A Red Cross blood drive at the Church at Creston in Creston on Jan. 6, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Since blood drives typically rely on sponsors like schools and universities, Ochsner says it’s been tricky for some to host the drives. Some sponsors have canceled, and certain venues have limited hours, but most have worked with the Red Cross to ensure the drives still happen.

“It’s a case-by-case scenario working with partners,” he said. “We’re really working our best to keep it at a steady rate and we’ve met the demand for Montana and keeping the shelves stocked.”

While convalescent plasma can only be donated in Missoula or Great Falls, people can still donate whole blood at any blood drive in the state, which can be separated and processed for the antibodies that are sent to the testing lab in Great Falls. People who have recovered from COVID-19 are especially encouraged to donate.

To incentivize convalescent plasma donations, the Red Cross has collaborated with the NFL to offer an opportunity to be entered to win two tickets to next year’s Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles, and donors will also be entered to win the Big Game at Home package, which includes a 65-inch television and $500 gift card.

“People have been amazingly generous,” Ochnsner said. “The country and state are going through a rough time right now and it’s important that we help one another. We see many donors come in the door and it needs to continue.”

To schedule an appointment to donate blood with the American Red Cross, visit www.redcrossblood.org or call 1-800-RED-CROSS. Donation opportunities are scheduled around the valley through January and can be searched by zip code on the organization’s website.

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