Thousands of East Texans might be walking around with the key to helping people who are fighting for their lives against COVID-19.

Area health authorities have reported that in Gregg, Upshur, Rusk, Smith, Panola and Harrison counties, some 1,500 people have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 and then recovered.

Their bodies developed antibodies in their blood that helped them fight the disease, and those antibodies can be used to help other patients recover. The plasma, or liquid portion, of the blood from someone who has recovered from the illness can be given to someone sick with COVID-19.

It’s called “convalescent plasma,” and it’s a treatment that’s been successfully used to fight other illnesses, too, including rabies, hepatitis B, polio virus, measles, influenza and Ebola.

Dr. Anita Scribner, an infectious disease specialist with the Diagnostic Clinic of Longview, is among medical professionals encouraging people who have recovered from COVID-19 to participate in a multinational trial that involves giving transfusions of the potentially life-saving plasma. It helps people who are “becoming very ill” with COVID-19 by giving them “passive immunity to fight the infection better.”

“It’s for people that are in the hospital and either have life-threatening disease or we fear they’re developing life-threatening disease,” Scribner said.

Longview Regional Medical Center and Christus Good Shepherd Medical Center, along with hospitals across the nation, are participating in the trial, she said.

Scribner is among the group of doctors who cared for Longview resident Jesus Mancha, who was hospitalized about three months as he fought to survive COVID-19. He was on a ventilator for about two months, and his family credits convalescent plasma treatment with sending him on the road to recovery.

COVID-19 cases have been rising across East Texas, with double-digit increases each day recently in Gregg and Smith counties.

Hospitalizations also have jumped. As of Tuesday in Longview, 85 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to Longview Mayor Andy Mack.

In Tyler, hospitalizations reached a record of 151 patients on Wednesday, according to the Northeast Texas Public Health District.

“The kind of limiting factor we’ve been running into in the last few days as things have gotten so bad here is that there’s not enough donor plasma,” Scribner said. “We’re hoping the people who have had COVID will sign up to donate plasma so that people who are getting it now can be treated like this.”

It’s taking a couple of days, right now, to find plasma matches for COVID-19 patients, Scribner said.

“We would like to be able to get it within a couple of hours,” Scribner said. “Time is very important with this infection. The earlier they’re treated with this, the better they’re likely to do. If you have to wait a couple of days to get plasma, you can see worse outcomes with patients because of the delay.”

In East Texas, Carter BloodCare’s Tyler office is the lone location collecting plasma for the COVID-19 convalescent plasma program. Information about the program can be found at carterbloodcare.org/plasma-donations-for-treating-covid-19 .

“We started this program on March 27 with the hospitals in East Texas, and so far we’ve only had about 22 donors register and come through in all of East Texas,” said Clinton McCoy, Carter BloodCare’s director of recruitment.

He’ll become a convalescent plasma donor himself on Monday. McCoy said that he had a “very mild” COVID-19 case, beginning on July 4 with what he thought were symptoms of allergies, but included chills and aches, grogginess and then a loss of smell and taste

He officially tested positive a few days later but had started to improve by that time. He came out of quarantine on Saturday.

He’s lucky, he said. Also, his wife and four children did not get sick.

He said he got to “secret shop his own organization” to see how the process of signing up for the convalescent plasma program works. It’s an easy process, he said. Donors need to be 14 days post-symptoms.

“We need them to sign up,” McCoy said. “The need is greater than ever.”

McCoy said Carter BloodCare is planning to take its mobile collection site for the second time to Titus County, which has been a COVID-19 hot spot. Otherwise, collections have taken place only in Tyler because they haven’t had enough donors to warrant traveling.

That could change if enough people in Gregg County signed up, he said. He said Carter BloodCare doesn’t have access to records about who has had COVID-19.

“We need them to come forward,” he said, and he said resources are being shared across the country.

Scribner emphasized the study is ongoing and results will be analyzed over time.

“Most of the time we’re seeing success,” but the final results — the success rate — won’t be known until later. She’s treated about 25 local patients with the technique. Other local doctors have used the method, too.

The study is moving quickly, she said, so it might not be long before reports on the study begin to be published.

“Everything is moving super fast,” she said because the medical community is trying to determine how best to treat the illness and spread the word.

She’s observed that people treated with convalescent plasma seem to start to improving a couple of days later, but those results will all be part of the information considered in the study.

“Until we have more widespread availability of antivirals, this is the way we can bridge to help people get better — we hope, we think,” Scribner said.

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