HONOLULU (KHON2) — A COVID-19 survivor hospitalized for nearly two weeks shares his eye-opening saga exclusively with KHON2. He’s revealing just how easy it is to spread COVID asymptomatically, and some gaps in containment and treatment.
George Ma is sharing his story to warn others about this invisible enemy. He also says post-recovery, he and many others cannot give the survivor’s plasma so desperately needed.
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To say Ma lives a healthy and active lifestyle is an understatement for this man who guides Parkinson’s patients through fitness by day, and spends his spare time keeping himself fit.
“I did jiu jitsu, I cycle, I’m a gym rat,” Ma said. “So if I’m not training others in a gym, I’m actually a client, and that’s how I spend my days mostly. I would start my mornings at 3 in the morning and I would probably go until 8 p.m.”
It was during an off-time gym session when something hit Ma that he couldn’t see coming
“I got a call saying that I might be exposed to COVID,” Ma said. “Because I work with Parkinson’s patients, I am on it. I am OCD. I have all my sprays, I have my mask. But I just took my mask off just for one hour (during personal gym time), and at that time the state said you’re able to take off your mask and exercise.”
“It was a hard lesson learned,” Ma said. “I should have — now knowing — I would have worn my mask at the gym, 24-7, and eyewear.”
Ma got tested the day after the exposure warning.
“Within that next day, I started feeling run down,” he said. “I was tired. I had this dry cough.”
Ma got his results the next day–positive for COVID. He had isolated since being contacted, and while awaiting the test, but still…
Ma says he’s glad he reached out on his own to alert his close contacts about his positive test, because his close contacts didn’t get a call from Department of Health for quite a while.
“The contact tracers, they didn’t get to my friends and family until like five days later, and that’s not on them, there are a lot of people,” Ma said, “especially now how the numbers have increased , so it’s really tough for the department to contact every single person (quickly).”
COVID sent Ma to the hospital for 12 days.
“I asked the nurse to just let me fight,” he recalls, “but by day two I just wanted to give up, it was just easier to give up.”
But a triple-crown combo of antiviral Remdesivir, an anti-inflammatory steroid called Dexamethasone, and the COVID convalescent plasma (CCP) from past survivors brought him back from the brink.
“Those three, I actually believe, it saved my life,” Ma said. “The plasma treatment is a 2-day process, and within the first treatment I felt like 20 percent better.”
“CCP is critically important because it is currently one of the three go-to treatment options being utilized until a vaccine or drug can be developed; the other two being Remdesevir and an anti-inflammatory steroid such as dexamethasone,” said Dr. Kim-Anh Nguyen, CEO of the Blood Bank of Hawaii. “Of these, CCP is the only one that can be made locally.”
Patients such as Ma are benefiting from donated plasma in droves. But with soaring cases the Blood Bank of Hawaii is in desperate need of more donors.
“The shortage of CCP is directly attributable to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases Hawaii has experienced, and the resulting increased hospitalizations,” Nguyen said. “It’s also due to the right blood type of plasma being needed for each patient because plasma, as a blood product, is dependent on blood type match between donor and recipient. The same situation is going on nationally.”
Recovered patients have given more than 200 doses, according to the Blood Bank of Hawaii, and half of those have been transfused to around 50 patients.
“Utilization has risen dramatically during the last few weeks,” Nguyen said.
Heeding the call to help, Ma was eager to donate his plasma after recovery.
“I was counting the days that I could give back,” he said. “What better way to be able to pay it forward, and be blessed to have this gift that saved my life and I can share it and help others, too.”
“They explained to me kindly this old mandated rule from back in the days that they won’t be able to accept my plasma because of my sexual orientation,” Ma said. “That just blew my mind, it’s 2020 you know? If it’s HIV that they’re worried about from the LGBTQ community, there’s rapid testing now, you can find out in 20 minutes.”
Yet the rules currently require a year deferral past any same-sex male encounter before donating blood or plasma. The FDA shortened the deferral to three months due to a blood shortage nationwide earlier in the spring, but even that has not made it into practice everywhere yet.
“Blood Bank of Hawaii strongly supports the FDA’s recent decision to change the time period for several HIV-related risk deferrals, including men who have sex with men, from 12 months to three months,” Nguyen told KHON2. “We are in the process of updating our internal processes and IT infrastructure to be able to implement a number of FDA-recommended deferral changes and look forward to sharing ongoing updates.”
Research from UCLA says more than 4.2 million gay American donors could become eligible to donate blood — and plasma if any of them are recovered from COVID — if the feds lifted the deferral altogether. Many want the FDA to act fast to widen the blood and plasma donor pool. A resolution in Congress (H. Res. 989) urging the FDA to do so awaits a hearing.
“Especially with the resurgence of COVID-19 throughout our country and Hawaii, we must bring every science-based tool to bear in fighting the virus,” U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who signed onto the resolution, told KHON2. “This clearly includes otherwise-safe donations of convalescent plasma from those who have recovered from the virus for at least two weeks and likely carry the antibodies needed to fight the virus.”
“In evaluating whether donations are safe, I believe the Food and Drug Administration, together with its approved blood donation centers, need to further evaluate the current restrictions to assure they are based purely on up-to-date scientific understanding and not on outdated and unjustifiable fears,” Case said.
“It’s not the Blood Bank of Hawaii’s fault, they’re doing a great job,” Ma said. “It’s just all politics and it’s federal, it’s in guidelines that are going to have to change. Hopefully people will hear us. You only can have the antibodies for so long.”
MORE DETAILS FROM THE BLOOD BANK OF HAWAII
Blood Bank of Hawaii’s COVID convalescent plasma (CCP) information page is here.
Procedures for donating
“Interested donors may contact Blood Bank of Hawaii’s dedicated CCP number (808) 848-4706 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The first step in the process is a brief pre-screening questionnaire done over the phone. They will be requested to submit their COVID-19 positive test result, and review our blood donor eligibility requirements. If the recovered patient is confirmed as able to donate, an appointment will be made at our Dillingham Donor Center. (Women with a history of pregnancy will undergo an additional antibody blood test screen prior to plasma donation.)
Plasma donors must be healthy on the day of donation, and be symptom free for 28 days. The appointment itself takes a little over an hour, with the actual donation taking about 45 minutes. It includes a health pre-check, the actual plasma draw, followed by a brief rest and refreshments.”
“As the stewards of Hawaii’s blood supply, Blood Bank of Hawaii has, and always will, keep our top priority the safety of the blood transfused to patients and the safety of our volunteer donors. We welcome donors from all parts of our community and are proud to have one of the most diverse donor populations in the U.S. Our industry is highly regulated and we are bound to follow national FDA guidelines. Eligibility criteria and FDA deferrals are the result of research and scientific data associated with safeguarding a volunteer-based blood supply against public health risk, including that of the HIV virus.”
“In solidarity with America’s Blood Centers and other organizations in the blood community, Blood Bank of Hawaii strongly advocated for the use of data driven, scientifically-based deferral periods that are applied fairly and consistently among blood donors who engage in similar risk activities. BBH strongly supports the FDA’s recent decision to change the time period for several HIV related risk deferrals, including men who have sex with men (MSM), from 12 months to three months. We are in the process of updating our internal processes and IT infrastructure to be able to implement a number of FDA-recommended deferral changes, MSM included, and look forward to sharing ongoing updates.”