Lompoc critical care unit
Medical staff at Lompoc Valley Medical Center’s Critical Care Unit care for a patient who had his ventilator removed after 14 days, and was able to breathe on his own. The hospital is using convalescent plasma as an experimental COVID-19 treatment for some patients. (Courtesy photo)

Santa Barbara County hospitals are continuing to use convalescent plasma blood as an experimental treatment for patients who are severely ill with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

The first coronavirus patient in Ventura County donated his blood in April, which was used to treat a Santa Maria Valley woman who was hospitalized in an intensive care unit at the time, as Noozhawk reported.   

Dr. Lynn Jeffers of Dignity Health said some plasma treatment results have been promising. 

“Convalescent plasma is the liquid part of the blood that has antibodies that the body has made to fight off COVID-19 as a result of the infection,” said Jeffers, chief medical officer at Dignity Health’s St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital. 

“This is what they are trying to do with vaccines — get a patient’s body to make those antibodies. In this case, we harness the power of antibodies produced by someone else and give it to the person who has severe COVID-19 to help them fight the virus.”

The plasma is inserted via intravenous infusion, the same method as any blood transfusion, she said.  

Dignity Health Central Coast, which includes Marian Regional Medical Center, has partnered with the Vitalant organization to spread the word that hospitals are looking for recovered COVID-19 patients to donate blood. 

About 30 people were prepared to donate blood within the first few weeks of launching the website, Jeffers said. 

“We continue to evaluate convalescent plasma as one of the tools we have in the fight against COVID-19,” Jeffers said in an email. “We also continue to monitor the data and science of patient results across the country, including our own.” 

She noted that, like Lompoc Valley Medical Center, Dignity Health only uses the convalescent plasma treatment on COVID-19 patients who have tested positive for the virus and have severe symptoms. 

In Lompoc, it is being used for patients who require ventilators, according to Christopher Taglia, general and bariatric surgeon at the Lompoc Valley Medical Center. 

The blood itself is delivered on an as-needed basis to the Lompoc Valley Medical Center. 

“It is difficult to be certain as to whether or not the treatment itself is helping,” he noted. “There are many patient-specific factors at play. In our small sample size, I have seen administration correlate with an improvement in overall clinical status.”

Three patients at Lompoc Valley Medical Center had undergone the plasma treatment as of May 19.

Any side effects “include those that might be seen with any transfusion of a blood product,” he said. 

The center will continue to use the plasma as long as it continues to be available, he said. 

At Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, the plasma treatment has been used for 11 patients, according to Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, who said that the preliminary data is difficult to interpret. 

She explained that most patients who have undergone the treatment so far are recovering or have recovered, but not all of them. Cottage Health is conducting its program under the Mayo Clinic protocol.

“The Mayo Clinic research group reports less than 1 percent risk of a serious adverse reaction, and yet 14 percent of these first 5,000 patients with severe or life-threatening infection ultimately died from their infection. Convalescent plasma appears to be a safe option, but is not able to save the life of every patient who receives it,” Fitzgibbons said. 

“We hope to learn more about who benefits most, and when in someone’s illness a plasma treatment will be most helpful.” 

She explained that the use of convalescent plasma was also used as a treatment during the 1918 influenza epidemic and the recent SARS and MERS epidemics. 

The hospital will continue to use the plasma only for coronavirus patients with severe symptoms, she said. 

Noozhawk contributing writer Evelyn Spence can be reached at news@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.