By Emily Klinkenborg | U.S. Army Medical Department Activity-Fort Carson Public Affairs Office
FORT CARSON, Colo. — In late April 2020, Maj. Chandra Punch, a doctor in charge of the Allergy and Immunology Clinic at Evans Army Community Hospital (EACH), introduced the technique of using COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma (CCP) at Fort Carson to accelerate patients’ recovery from the illness.
Punch established EACH as an approved CCP site under the Department of Defense, which gave the hospital authorization to administer the treatment to COVID-19 patients.
“Essentially, we are taking plasma from the blood of someone who has previously recovered from COVID-19 and using the antibodies in the plasma to treat current COVID-19 patients,” said Punch. “Antibodies have multiple functions; they can bind up the virus that is still there, and they can also alter a person’s immune system in a more favorable way.”
The process of donating plasma is similar to the process of donating blood in that the blood is collected through an IV. When donating plasma, the blood is sent through a machine that separates the plasma from the red blood cells. The plasma is collected in an IV bag while the red blood cells, other platelets and some saline comfortably return to the donor through an IV.
The Armed Forces Blood Program (AFBP) provides approved CCP sites with an inventory of plasma to support each blood type. EACH Laboratory’s blood bank section is responsible for storing plasma units received by the AFBP.
The use of plasma to treat illnesses is not a new concept, and Punch was determined to secure the CCP treatment as a viable option for EACH’s COVID-19 treatment mission.
Punch also helped oversee the successful treatment of CCP with EACH COVID-19 patient, Joyce Woffenden, who was treated and released in July after a nearly two-month inpatient stay.
“I started doing research on it and saw that it had been used in the 2003 SARS-CoV-1 epidemic, the 2009 to 2010 H1N1 influenza virus, and more recently the 2012 MERS coronavirus epidemic,” said Punch. “I thought that maybe this is something we could consider for our hospital.”
The U.S. Army Medical Material Development Activity’s Force Health Protection Division at Fort. Detrick, Maryland, implemented a research protocol as a set of guidelines and regulations for approved CCP sites to adhere to.
Under the protocol, COVID-19 patients who meet the criteria to receive a unit of plasma will be assigned an identification number for their case. Only the data and case number are reported back to Fort Detrick for confidentially purposes.
“When we have a patient that meets the criteria for receiving (CCP), the blood bank thaws a unit that will be released and given to the patient,” said 2nd Lt. Adam Heard, the deputy laboratory manager at EACH.
One unit of plasma is transfused through an IV over a two-hour period. If the COVID-19 patient’s health does not increase, then medical professionals can administer a second dose. COVID-19 patients are assessed every day by EACH medical professionals until they recover and receive a follow up assessment 31 days after they are discharged.
Since the Food and Drug Administration authorized the use of CCP treatments, the Military Health System is encouraging those who have recovered from the illness to donate CCP at their local blood donor center (BDC).
The nearest BDC, located at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in Fort Bliss, Texas, will be conducting a mobile Armed Services Blood Program (ASBP) blood drive on Fort Carson Sept. 21-24, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.
“Being a small (medical treatment facility) we don’t have a blood donor center,” said Heard. “We do, however, help coordinate (blood drives) and store collected blood products overnight so they can be shipped back to Fort Bliss the following day for processing.”
Beneficiaries are eligible to donate CCP if they have recently tested positive for COVID-19, are at least 17 years old, weigh at least 110 pounds, and have been symptom-free for at least 14 days.
“It’s a way to regulate some of these experimental therapies for COVID-19, to keep the patient safe and to also allow us to track everything,” said Punch. “Ideally, if a person donates within a few weeks after recovering, then it is more likely that we can get a good number of antibodies.”