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Jose Lopez Ramos donates plasma on July 7 toward Houchin Community Blood Bank's COVID-19 convalescent plasma program.

Local hospital officials put out an urgent call Wednesday for blood plasma donations from people who have recovered from COVID-19 in order to treat patients hospitalized with serious illness from the virus.

Dignity Health officials said 18 patients were waiting for plasma treatments among its three Bakersfield hospitals — Mercy Downtown, Mercy Southwest and Bakersfield Memorial.

With a vaccination effort underway, there is an added element of immediacy, since once an individual is vaccinated they can no longer donate plasma, said Terri Church, Dignity Health's chief nursing officer. 

Houchin Blood Bank's inventory of convalescent plasma, as it's known, has dropped 80 percent since Dec. 1, from about 1,700 units to a current 250 units, said the organization's marketing manager, Rachel Parlier. However, there is currently no convalescent plasma supplies for two blood types — AB and B, Parlier said.

The decline in supply is due both to more patients needing the plasma and a drop in donations, Parlier said, which likely explains why some patients have been left waiting for the treatment.

Hospitals countywide continue to see an increase in COVID-19 patients streaming into local facilities, which is straining their ability to care for everyone. A total of 441 patients were hospitalized in Kern for the virus, with 108 of those cases in the ICU as of Tuesday, the most recent day for which state data is available. That's an increase of 77 patients in two weeks.

"We are bending the system so far that any more pressure on this, it will break," said Dr. Hemal Kothary, chief medical officer for the three local Dignity Health hospitals.

The antibodies in the plasma have become a routine treatment for COVID-19 patients in the hospital, according to Kothary.

"The two things we know that work really well for COVID are the steroids we give in the hospitals and convalescent plasma," Kothary said. "Time and time again that’s been shown to improve patients' symptoms and get them out of the ICU as well."

Though the experimental treatment was initially viewed with some skepticism, its use throughout the pandemic has gained traction and more recent studies have bolstered its effectiveness. In particular, a study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine found that when given in the first 72 hours, the treatment helped prevent progression of symptoms in older patients. 

Bakersfield Memorial President and CEO Ken Keller said 80 patients at Memorial were COVID-19 positive as of Wednesday. 

The two Mercy Hospitals had a record high 214 patients hospitalized overnight, and about half of them were COVID-19 positive, said the hospitals' President Bruce Peters.

Currently there are an estimated 35,000 Kern County residents who have recovered from the virus, according to county data. Plasma donations can be made 14 days after symptoms are gone, according to Houchin's website.

Those interested in donating should contact Houchin Blood Bank, 661-323-4222.