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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Dr. Liz Culler at Blood Assurance on Monday, July 20, 2020. Blood Assurance is the 2020 Champion of Health Care in the Community Outreach Category.

People who have recovered from COVID-19 carry a potentially powerful weapon against the disease in their veins, and Blood Assurance moved fast to tap that resource in the early days of the pandemic.

"We set up the program in 24 hours, and did a big media launch on a Sunday," says Dr. Liz Culler, the medical director of Blood Assurance. "We knew we had to put that in place. Within three weeks of the first local case, we were shipping plasma."

The blood plasma of people who have recovered from COVID-19 contains antibodies to the disease that could help people who are struggling to fight off the virus. The first unit of that plasma to come from the Blood Assurance program went over Easter weekend to a critically ill nurse in Greenville, South Carolina, who recovered quickly once the plasma was administered, Dr. Culler says.

Though there haven't been conclusive results yet of large studies tracking the effectiveness of these treatments, the anecdotal evidence is very positive and demand for the units is strong, she says.

"We have demand for 50-60 units a day," she says. "Demand has really increased."

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Blood Assurance receives Champions of Health Care community outreach award

When the program began, Blood Assurance was collecting enough plasma to serve COVID-19 patients in the Chattanooga region and send some to other communities — but that has changed as cases have spiked.

"Now we need it here," Dr. Culler says. "I have 40 open orders this morning. Unfortunately, many states have the same need."

Tight local partnerships, including running COVID-19 tests through the newly established lab at Baylor School, made it possible to get the program up and running in a day rather than the usual month or so that new programs typically require, Dr. Culler says. By the time CHI Memorial Hospital called seeking the antibody treatment for a patient, Blood Assurance had a plan to test donors and share their antibodies.

"Memorial [Hospital] called on a Friday, three donors were here Saturday morning getting swabs, and we had the results from Baylor by Monday," she says.

The first three donors to the program were among the earliest cases in the community. Father Brad Whitaker, the priest at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, was the first person to be identified as a COVID-19 case in Hamilton County, and he was the first donor to the plasma program. Dr. Stephen Barnes, an anesthesiologist, was the second donor. Whitaker's wife, Harriet Whitaker, was the third.

Blood Assurance

* About: A non-profit regional blood center established in 1971

* Extraordinary Service: Blood Assurance acted fast to collect and distribute blood plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 to help treat people who are struggling to recover from the virus.

* By the Numbers: This year, 345 convalescent plasma donors have given 1,449 convalescent plasma units.

"You can draw up to four units from a donor once a week for a month, then twice a month, then every 28 days," Dr. Culler says. As for how long antibodies stay in the blood, she adds, "No one knows for sure."

Donors who have recovered from COVID-19 are the key to meeting the need, and local hospitals have worked to identify and recruit potential donors. But not everyone who recovers has been hospitalized, so Blood Assurance is also recruiting donors directly.

"We need people to come out and donate," Dr. Culler says. "The hospitals have been fantastic, but if people aren't hospitalized, we don't have the mechanism to reach them to ask them to donate."

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