NEW YORK, NY — One of New York’s largest blood banks is partnering with the national Orthodox Jewish umbrella group Agudath Israel of America and a network of dedicated volunteers to bring potentially lifesaving blood plasma to patients suffering from coronavirus.
New York Blood Center, a nonprofit with locations throughout the tristate area, will work with the Jewish nonprofit to encourage survivors of the deadly virus to donate their plasma in an effort to help coronavirus patients recover.
Doctors are using the active antibodies in blood plasma from people who have recovered from coronavirus to treat sick patients through blood transfusions, one of the few therapies that has shown real promise against the global pandemic. The treatment, called convalescent plasma therapy, is medically cutting edge for the treatment of coronavirus. While doctors still don’t fully understand why some coronavirus patients respond better to the treatment than others, the therapy has a track record of success when used to combat similar viruses such as H1N1, SARS, and MERS, and results from early use in coronavirus patients have been encouraging. New York Blood Center hopes to secure enough donations to maintain a bank of blood with coronavirus antibodies for use in New York City area hospitals, the center’s officials said.
In addition to potentially saving lives, if plasma therapy can help some patients recover more rapidly, that can open up hospital beds and relieve pressure off New York’s buckling health care infrastructure.
“The Jewish ethos places supreme value on life,” said Avrohom Weinstock Esq., Agudath Israel’s Chief of Staff. “We knew we could uniquely mobilize our constituents to help for something like this, but the response has exceeded our expectations. Within hours of our plasma solicitation – just before Passover no less – we had hundreds of calls to donate.”
Mordy Serle, an Orthodox Jewish attorney from Brooklyn, NY, dropped everything to help coordinate the effort. “This became personal for me when my father-in-law became seriously ill with coronavirus. After he recovered, my only thought was, ‘What can I do to help others.’”
Chaim Lebovits sells shoes in Spring Valley, NY, but his experience previously coordinating with Dr. Shmuel Shoham, Associate Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine, one of the country’s leading researchers into plasma therapy for coronavirus, has been invaluable in the effort. “The amazing thing,” said Chaim, “is that none of us had met before a couple weeks ago, and now we are on the phone nonstop. We just kind of all had a common goal we were hyperfocused on, and coalesced around the project.”
With hundreds of new fatalities reported daily, Avrohom, Mordy, Chaim, and other volunteers have been working against the clock to accelerate and coordinate donations. “We have Zoom meetings at 3 am in our pajamas,” joked Mordy. “Whatever it takes.”
Danny Riemer and his wife Sheera of New Rochelle, NY were among the first volunteers to donate blood plasma in early April. “This was a way to turn our personal bouts with coronavirus into something positive that can help others,” said the Orthodox Jewish couple.
Agudath Israel and its volunteers are also working to help bring on board hospitals in the New York area and throughout the country to administer plasma to coronavirus patients. With the FDA now fast-tracking plasma therapy for either plasma clinical trials or immediate use, and the Mayo Clinic opening its doors for other hospitals to participate in its study, the administrative load is now lighter than most hospitals realize to start delivering plasma to critically ill patients.
For its part, New York Blood Bank is proud of being a leader in this field. “This is what we were created for,” said Beth H. Shaz, MD, the center’s Chief Medical and Scientific Officer. “It has been heartwarming to see Agudath Israel and the Jewish community step up in such a tangible way to get as much plasma as possible to the patients who need it.”