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Upstate nurses who are trained to collect convalescent plasma
The plasma project uses plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 to help others fighting the disease. These are the specially trained Upstate nurses who collect convalescent plasma. From left: Amy Bielicki, Connie Capone, Vicki Morey, Michele Weber and Deborah Willson. (photos by Robert Mescavage and Richard Whelsky)

Fighting COVID-19 with donated blood



Apheresis is the process of separating blood components from whole blood. The components could be stem cells from a person undergoing cancer treatment, red blood cells from someone with sickle cell disease, or plasma to help someone with a neurological condition or a kidney transplant.

It’s a specialized treatment. Nurses who work in apheresis spend about a year in training, perfecting all of the procedures – some of which are provided on an emergency basis.

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, an emergency clinical trial was launched. A person who recovered from COVID-19 had developed antibodies, which were believed to have the power to help someone else fighting the disease. Those antibodies first had to be extracted from the plasma of donors who survived COVID-19.

Who better to collect what’s known as “convalescent plasma” than nurses trained in apheresis?

“The technology that they were already familiar with for performing plasma exchanges, which they do routinely, is the same technology used to perform convalescent plasma collections,” says Kelly Dolan, assistant director of nursing at Upstate. 

Nurse Deborah Willson says when they heard about the convalescent plasma project, the apheresis team volunteered to get involved. They arranged for the necessary machines and training and wrote the applicable policies.

“We were excited we could help out in our own way,” Willson says.

She explains that donors may feel as if they are making a routine blood donation. Blood is removed through tubing inserted into their arm that connects to a machine where the blood components are separated. The antibody-containing plasma is collected in bags. The remaining blood cells are returned to the donor, through the same tubing. The process may take a half-hour and usually involves collecting 600 milliliters of plasma (about 2½ cups).

Donors receive an anticoagulant called citrate to help prevent the blood from clotting during the procedure. Willson says unless donors do strenuous work, they are usually able to return to regular activities right after their donation – as long as they replenish their fluids.

The antibody-rich plasma is tested and processed in an Upstate laboratory and stored in the hospital’s blood bank before it is considered for use in patients with COVID-19.

Want to volunteer?

The convalescent plasma project is recruiting COVID-19 survivors. If you are 18 years of age or older, have tested positive for COVID-19 and are now 14 days out from your last symptom, call Upstate Clinical Trials at 315-464-9869 to arrange a screening appointment.

Researchers at Upstate are preparing COVID-19 vaccine studies for children, which are planned to begin enrollment later this year.

Upstate Health Magazine

This article appears in the winter 2021 issue of Upstate Health magazine

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