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MUSC doctors perform first blood plasma transfusions in Lowcountry for COVID-19 patients

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Dr. John Wrangle is collaborating with a team of experts to test how blood plasma may be used to treat coronavirus patients. File

Doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina are soliciting blood plasma donations from patients who have been diagnosed and have recovered from COVID-19 to treat others who remain critically ill. 

MUSC announced Wednesday that the hospital system has performed blood transfusions on three coronavirus patients and will soon perform a fourth. The patients have been located both in Charleston and at MUSC's campus in Lancaster.

The prognosis of these patients remains unclear, although experts across the country have been optimistic that the procedure shows promise in combating the virus, said Dr. John Wrangle of the Hollings Cancer Center. 

"It's very early days right now," Wrangle said. "It will take some time to understand how quickly people are responding at MUSC."

Patients who would like to donate plasma must have a documented positive test for COVID-19 and must be symptom-free for at least 28 days. 

Six patients have donated their plasma to MUSC so far, and Wrangle expects a dozen more donations to come in this week. Plasma from one donor can help up to four sick patients. 

These blood transfusions are ramping up at a time when another potential treatment for COVID-19 still needs further study. Hydroxychloroquine has been cited by President Donald Trump and others as a promising way to treat coronavirus, but results remain mixed. 

Blood transfusions, by contrast, have been already proven effective during other outbreaks. 

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Rory Silverman is a Mount Pleasant resident enrolled in graduate school at the University of South Carolina. He tested positive for COVID-19 on March 16 at MUSC's drive-thru clinic in West Ashley. On Friday, the hospital approached him about donating his plasma to help other patients. 

It wasn't difficult, he said. "I've donated blood before." 

Wrangle said he was initially concerned that doctors at MUSC would struggle to find donors who fit the criteria. But every patient who the hospital has approached has willingly agreed. 

"No one says 'no,'" Wrangle said. 

Experts at MUSC and across the state, including doctors at Roper St. Francis and Prisma, have been collaborating on this effort, he said. 

Dr. Timothy Whelan, who also works at MUSC, said the best safeguards against the virus remain hand-washing and social distancing.

But like Wrangle, Whelan said he was optimistic about the possibility of expanding the use of blood plasma transfusions for coronavirus patients. He called the procedure "low risk."

So far, the transfusions at MUSC have been performed on patients "who were critically, critically ill." In the future, providers will try to identify candidates for the procedure who have a confirmed positive test, those at risk of becoming critically ill and whose disease has been diagnosed during an earlier, more treatable stage. 

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.

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