Ponte Vedra resident Warren Chandler was in the midst of enjoying a “trip of a lifetime” exploring the wine regions of Australia with his wife. Starting in Sydney, they explored the Adelaide Hills and were on to taste the dark-skinned, jammy grapes of the Barossa Valley, who spent their long days baking in the hot sun by stone cottages.
All that came to an abrupt halt, however, when two members of their tour group came down with COVID-19.
Of the 18 people on the tour, 17 of them tested positive. One was bedridden for almost two weeks. Another needed to be hospitalized and ended up on a ventilator for 12 days.
“Everybody was conscientious,” Chandler said. “The age group was a little older. Most of the folks were 60 to 70 years old. Age-wise we were a concerned group.”
Chandler’s symptoms proved mild, consisting of a headache, nausea and loss of energy. His wife, who tested positive many days after he did, suffered only slightly worse than him, including a mild fever and loss of taste.
“I think everyone gets that concern that this little cough or this little headache could get worse and worse,” Chandler said. “Every morning that you start off not feeling well, you're asking yourself how much is this going to get worse? Am I going to get better? In my case, luckily it never got worse.”
Chandler’s trip started in early March, before cases started skyrocketing and social restrictions and travel bans were in place. At the time he contracted the illness, only 42 people in South Australia tested positive. Many weeks later when he was discharged from his hotel quarantine and arrived home, he came upon an article about a new treatment for the disease which uses a recovered individual’s antibodies to fight against the virus.
As one of the few and first that have tested positive, Chandler searched and found LifeSouth, a non-profit community blood bank that serves more than 100 hospitals in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. The nonprofit is currently accepting convalescent plasma donations to help treat critically sick COVID-19 patients.
“The idea with it is that once you've recovered, you've formed antibodies those antibodies can help somebody else stimulate their immune response,” said Dr. Chris Lough, LifeSouth’s vice president of medical services.
While the treatment is still in clinical trials, Dr. Lough has high hopes for the possibility of real, effective results.
“Early results have been good,” Dr. Lough said. “We've seen similar good results in past diseases with the flu, they did it with MERS and the original COVID [SARS], so there is some precedent for it.”
According to Dr. Lough, there currently isn’t any effective treatment for COVID-19 patients, with hospitals providing only supportive care to patients struggling with respiratory failure and other symptoms. With plasma treatment, the donor’s antibodies directly act upon the virus in the immune system or the patient’s antibodies can become stimulated by the presence of equipped antibodies who’ve encountered the virus before. One donation from a recovered COVID-19 individual can treat up to four patients currently struggling with the disease.
“The early stuff out of China has shown that there are good signals of faster recovery as well as fewer mortalities,” Dr. Lough said. “We see fewer people dying when they get this.”
While nobody can say for sure if plasma donation is truly a lifesaving treatment, “there is a lot of hope right now,” according to Dr. Lough.
Chandler, who saw the real danger up close, believes that a donation could potentially make a difference for someone battling the disease – and hope alone isn’t exactly worthless these days.
“I got lucky,” Chandler said. “If this could help anybody else that would be great.”
Recovered patients who were tested and found positive and have not had symptoms for at least 14 days and test negative by a lab – or have not had symptoms for 28 days – are asked to donate plasma. Potential donors should email email@example.com or call (888) 795-2707. More information can be found at www.lifesouth.org/covid-19.