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Nearly a third of Alaska’s COVID-19 patients have recovered. Their plasma could heal others.

A person walks by the Blood Bank of Alaska, Monday, April 13, 2020. The organization is asking recovered COVID-19 patients to donate plasma in hopes of treating critically ill patients with the virus. (Anne Raup / ADN)

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Almost a third of Alaskans who tested positive for COVID-19 have recovered since infections began here last month, new state statistics show.

That update comes as the Blood Bank of Alaska mounts a campaign to use plasma from recovered patients to fight the new coronavirus that’s causing a global pandemic.

The number of people considered recovered from the virus is now 85, health officials said Monday. That’s more than 30% of the state’s total confirmed count of 277.

As the state defines it, patients are considered recovered if their symptoms have improved enough to meet Centers for Disease Control criteria to be released from home isolation. They are no longer considered to be infectious.

The Blood Bank of Alaska is asking recovered patients to donate plasma, the organization announced Monday. Plasma is the liquid part of whole blood that carries cells and proteins. The plasma of recovered COVID-19 patients may contain antibodies that could help neutralize infection in critically ill patients still battling the virus.

“It’s really probably the one treatment that holds the most promise,” said Robert Scanlon, Blood Bank of Alaska CEO.

The treatment is at the investigational stage. Clinical trials are still underway. In the interim, the federal Food and Drug Administration has authorized the use of what’s called convalescent plasma among patients with severe or life-threatening COVID-19, or at risk of developing it.

To be eligible, donors must have had a documented COVID-19 diagnosis and complete resolution of mild to severe symptoms for 28 or more days; or a previous documented diagnosis, the complete resolution of mild to severe symptoms for 14 to 27 days, and another negative test.

There’s already one Alaskan recovered COVID-19 patient who’s working with the Blood Bank to make a plasma donation, Scanlon said. “We’re hoping he is the first of many that will step forward to save lives and help the community."

There is currently no evidence indicating that SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for causing COVID-19, can be transmitted via blood transfusion, Blood Bank officials say. Patients who get these so-called convalescent plasma treatments are already positive for and experiencing severe symptoms from the virus.

Donors can give whole blood — the plasma is separated out later — or donate plasma through a process called apheresis collection which separates out the plasma and puts red blood cells back into the donor’s body. The methods provide enough plasma for one or two patients, respectively, Scanlon said. The Blood Bank prefers the apheresis method, which takes about 90 minutes, “because it’s a larger dose, a larger volume,” he said.

Any donated plasma from recovered patients would go to sick Alaskans.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many COVID-19 patients could benefit from the treatment. As of Monday, there were 32 Alaskans sick enough with the virus to be hospitalized, according to state data.

Using plasma to treat COVID-19 is as-yet unproven but based on successful therapies in previous viral outbreaks such as SARS, MERS and the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, said Dr. Michael Schwalbe, a pathologist at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage.

Generally, Schwalbe said treatment would begin with providers administering one plasma infusion to a critically ill patient and evaluating their progress.

“It’s difficult to predict how much will be needed, but I can say any donation is welcome," he said.

The Blood Bank is collecting plasma at the Anchorage main center and the Fairbanks facility only. For more information about donating plasma, contact the Blood Bank of Alaska at 907-222-5630.

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Reporter James Brooks contributed to this story.

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