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DeKALB – Karin Podolski was ill in mid-March, so she went to the emergency room with nausea and stomach pain, but no fever.
A CT scan showed that she had pneumonia. Podolski was not tested for COVID-19 because tests were not readily available at the time, but she was told to quarantine for two weeks under the assumption she had it.
About a month later, Podolski asked her doctor for a COVID-19 antibody test. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a COVID-19 antibody test, also known as a serology test, is a blood test that can detect if a person has antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Podolski’s antibody test came back positive for COVID-19 antibodies.
Podolski is the director of community health for Northwestern Medicine. She graduated from Northern Illinois University with a Bachelor of Science in nursing in 1995 and Master of Science in nursing and Master of Public Health from NIU in 2002. As a nurse, Podolski has worked for Northwestern Medicine for 23 years in a variety of roles.
In hospitals across the country, including at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb, plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients, called convalescent COVID-19 plasma, is being used to help treat others diagnosed with the virus.
Dr. Jay Liu, infectious diseases physician with Northwestern Medicine Delnor and Central DuPage hospitals, said that more than 100 patients in the suburban Chicago area battling COVID-19 have received convalescent COVID-19 plasma. The plasma is being used by hospitals to help treat patients diagnosed with COVID-19.
“We take donated plasma from people recovered from COVID-19, because their plasma has antibodies that combat the virus,” Liu said. “We transfer the plasma to patients in the midst of the disease, because the theory is that their antibody numbers are not sufficient. … It gives patients a leg up in fighting against COVID-19, especially those in the early stages of the disease.”
Liu said that using plasma in such a way has been used in the past for SARS, Ebola, influenza and other viruses, but never as broadly used as for COVID-19.
In early May, Podolski began donating her plasma with COVID-19 antibodies. She has donated her convalescent COVID-19 plasma at BioLife Plasma Services in DeKalb every two weeks, about eight times in total.
“I donate my plasma to help others,” Podolski said. “After a quick medical history questionnaire and a check of my blood pressure, hemoglobin and weight, I make a donation. I’m hooked up to a machine, and it takes 45 minutes to an hour. When I have donated blood in the past, I feel exhausted for a long time after. It’s different with plasma donations because they replace the volume you donate with fluids, so you don’t feel as drained.”
In a press release, Versiti Blood Center of Illinois said that the demand for convalescent plasma is exceeding donations coming in.
“In fact, our demand from hospitals for convalescent COVID-19 plasma is up 50% from what it was a month ago,” according to the news release. “We really need those who have recovered from COVID to help out. Their donation of convalescent COVID-19 plasma could help those who are currently hospitalized.”
Podolski encourages everyone to donate blood, and while at a blood drive or center, to also have their blood tested for the COVID-19 antibody.
“We don’t know where our plasma goes or who gets it, but I have heard that patients locally have been receiving plasma,” Podolski said. “It’s such a novel virus, and there’s still so much we don’t know about it. We need to do everything we can for the safety of our society and community. If this helps in some way, if it helps someone in the hospital recover faster, that would be great.”
Liu said that the next step is for scientists to create a synthetic antibody to combat COVID-19 instead of needing donations from recovered patients.
“There are ongoing smaller trials worldwide, but nothing done with big trials yet,” Liu said. “Anecdotally, we’ve seen reduced morbidity and complications. It’s something that’s pretty promising until a vaccine is developed or until other therapeutic options are completely vetted.”