Houchin Community Blood Bank already has a tough time getting people through the door to donate blood when there's not a pandemic, but now it's facing another challenge: getting those who have recovered from the coronavirus to donate convalescent plasma.

For those who have been previously diagnosed with COVID-19 and recovered from the illness, their blood plasma, which is rich in antibodies, is donated to help build up the immune system in someone who has a serious or life-threatening COVID-19 infection, explained Rachel Parlier, creative development coordinator. This has been used to help treat other illnesses as well.

During the donation, a machine determines how much plasma someone can give, depending on their height, weight and other factors. Individuals can give up to 1,000 milliliters of plasma, which can provide five units.

How much plasma a sick individual will need also varies from patient to patient. Josie Pippert, director of quality assurance, said some patients have been transfusing two units.

Unlike other donations where the blood bank can call and ask people to stop by, it's a bit trickier with this one.

"We’re just depending on recovered people to call us," Pippert said, as well as doctors recommending those patients to donate. "We can’t go find them because of HIPAA," which protects an individual's health information. Hospitals also can't release information on who has recovered from COVID-19.

As of Thursday, Houchin has received 52 convalescent plasma donations, which has come out to 170 units.

With the number of new coronavirus cases surpassing 100 seven times in the last eight days, Pippert says the donations currently received are far from enough to help those who need it most. In fact, the blood bank has had to import convalescent plasma from places such as Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and UCLA because there hasn't been enough. 

"As soon as it’s available and ready to ship, it’s gone," she said. "It's all gone locally. We haven’t shared our convalescent plasma with any other county."

According to the Kern County Public Health Services Department, as of Tuesday, 3,777 individuals have recovered from COVID-19 — all potential donors.

Pippert would like to see a couple of recovered individuals coming to the blood bank's Bolthouse Drive location daily to donate convalescent plasma. On Tuesday, there were three individuals scheduled to do just that.

One was Ridgecrest resident Bob Beecroft. In March, Beecroft underwent heart surgery, putting him among those most vulnerable to severe illness caused by the coronavirus. After he returned to work in May, he and his wife decided to get tested for COVID-19. A few days later, he learned he tested positive. 

He said he experienced shortness of breath and chills, but he thought it was all related to his surgery. 

Now fully recovered, Beecroft, sitting in the donation room Tuesday afternoon, said donating plasma was a simple way to give back to fellow Kern County residents.

"It’s a good opportunity to help others, so I encourage (people who have recovered) to donate," he said.

Those interested in donating can call the Houchin Community Blood Bank COVID-19 convalescent plasma hotline at 661-616-2575. Individuals must show proof of an initial positive COVID-19 test or positive antibody test and must be free of all symptoms for at least 14 days. Plasma from those with blood types AB and A is most sought after.

Someone can donate convalescent plasma eight times in a three-month period, explained Pippert, and they get volume replacement, which helps the donor feel OK and not dehydrated or worn out. 

"We have more people in the hospitals than we have donors," Parlier said. "We need them and that community support."

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.

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