ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. – After an email was sent out to the workforce looking for volunteers to help in the fight against COVID-19, two Rock Island Arsenal employees knew this was their opportunity to give back.
Maj. Katherine Williams, ground combat/chemical/engineering equipment, Lead Materiel Integration Directorate, U.S. Army Sustainment Command, and Mike Lux, Sustainment Production/Medium Caliber and Tank chief, U.S. Joint Munitions Command, signed up mid-August as local coordinators for COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma in Chicago, Illinois, and Tampa, Florida.
“COVID-19 has affected everyone to varying degrees from the onset,” Williams said. “When the email came out asking for volunteers to work under the U.S. government’s COVID-19 response program, referred to at that time as Operation Warp Speed, I saw it as my opportunity to have an impact helping in a small way.”
“We had no idea what to expect,” said Lux. He said the email only mentioned the need for CCP coordinators. Medical background was preferred but not required, and strong leadership skills were a must.
Colonel Sean S. O’Neil, operational lead for convalescent plasma, OWS, remembers the challenges starting the mission.
“We didn’t know for sure if this local coordinator concept would be successful, we really didn’t have time for much preparation and analysis,” he said. “We put them out there, told them the intent, and challenged them to be creative.”
CCP is the liquid portion of the blood from donors who have recovered from COVID-19. It contains antibodies that can help combat the virus. Under the Emergency Use Authorization issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, CCP can be used to treat hospitalized patients via transfusion.
In their new role, Lux and Williams were matrixed through the U.S. Army Materiel Command to Operation Warp Speed and the assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response under the Department of Health and Human Services.
“After joining the team, we were given some background information on plasma collection, and we were told to maximize CCP collection in our areas,” he said.
As CCP coordinators, Lux and Williams temporarily relocated to their assigned COVID-19 hotspots with the mission to maximize donor identification with a team goal of doubling CCP collections nationally.
They worked with blood centers, hospitals, public health departments, elected officials, and local civic organizations to promote awareness of the need for CCP to treat COVID-19 patients, as well as the demand from hospitals for this blood product.
“I traveled from RIA to Tampa, Florida. While in Tampa, I covered the Tampa-Clearwater-St. Petersburg region,” said Williams. “I traveled to several blood drives throughout the community to encourage donation of both CCP from those who had recovered and also blood donations from those who had not been infected.”
Williams said she had two counterparts in Florida working with her on the OWS team, one in Orlando and one in Miami. They met up at the OneBlood blood donation center in Orlando, toured the facility, and discussed initiatives to accelerate the donation of CCP throughout the state.
They ended up partnering with Veterans Affairs hospitals to conduct a joint VA/OWS/OneBlood partnership, where VA hospitals scheduled drives for three months to boost collection of CCP and blood.
Lux talked about his experience in Chicago. The first week he got the opportunity to meet the regional manager for one of the blood centers he worked with. She informed him that their greatest challenge was to get donors to come in.
Lux remembers the regional manager showing him a picture of a man smiling and holding up his CCP bag like a trophy. She said that, after recovering, this man and his entire family, all of whom had recovered from COVID-19, went back to the blood center to donate every seven days for several weeks.
This man’s passion was derived from the fact that, only six weeks before the picture was taken, he was on a ventilator and his family was told that he had a less than 2% chance to survive. The blood center regional manager told Lux they need more people like this one.
“Suddenly the mission was clear,” Lux said, adding that he understood how important it was for recovered patients to donate. “We need to get everyone to this man’s same level of dedication to helping others.”
Williams also said that one big learning curve for her was to try to figure out how to motivate those who have recovered from COVID to donate their plasma.
“It’s difficult to create an industrial base to fight this pandemic, when the industrial base revolves around the population who have recovered and their willingness to donate their plasma,” she said.
Lux said that they met with the blood centers in their assigned regions in order to identify barriers that were hindering CCP collection. The number one problem was the lack of ability to get donors to show up ¬– mostly due to lack of awareness of the demand for CCP.
Next step was to engage with hospitals and public health departments to share best practices learned across the nation on how to reach out to recovered patients and encourage them to donate CCP.
Once those relationships were established, they began partnering with business councils, civic groups and non-profit organizations.
“The amount of support we received from these groups was amazing. Most business coalitions and non-profit organizations already had COVID-19 response on their agendas and were meeting virtually on a regularly basis,” Lux said. “We would be invited as guest speakers and use the opportunity to inform members on ways they could help our team to combat the virus.”
Lux recalls receiving a phone call one night from the vice president of a manufacturing plant whose plant was hit hard by the virus. Their town population was only 8,000 and the nearest blood center was a 90-minute drive away, but they were willing to help.
Lux advised him that CCP demand was so high at the moment that some of the blood centers he was working with were willing to host mobile CCP drives for as few as two donors. He also told him that, if each of his recovered employees donated, it would be a week-long drive that could almost rival what is currently being collected in the entire city of Chicago during that same time period.
A week later, the manufacturing plant’s vice president partnered with a blood center and plans were underway to convert an American Legion hall into a temporary collection center to service the area.
“I think the biggest eye opener was what a valuable resource blood centers are across the nation,” Williams said. She had the opportunity to learn the logistical coordination for transportation of blood products and the process of matching donors and recipients.
“The results were amazing,” said O’Neil. “We’ve seen a 430% increase in plasma donations as a result of our CCP coordinators’ incredible efforts.”
Currently, CCP and remdesivir are the only FDA-approved treatments for hospitalized patients. Additionally, CCP is in testing as the basis for a variety of therapeutics.
The increasing number of CCP treatment applications, combined with increased numbers of COVID-19 positive cases and hospitalizations, have created a dramatic need for more CCP.
Current and future challenges require continued donations to treat patients and to build up a national surplus of CCP. As the pandemic continues to impact where blood centers can host blood drives, the challenge is to find locations and community partners who are willing to help.
More than 250,000 Americans across the country have now received CCP treatment and physicians continue to ask for it to treat their increasing number of patients.
Medical experts are urging people who have recovered from COVID-19 and are interested in helping support this cause to contact their local blood centers or visit www.thefightisinus.org to schedule an appointment.
In addition to social distancing, wearing a face covering, and practicing good hygiene, donating CCP is another way for the nation to keep fighting against COVID-19.
Regular blood donations to meet ongoing patient demand are still needed. The medical community is asking people who have not contracted COVID-19 to consider donating whole blood as overall donations are down due to continued closures of schools and businesses.
Williams said that partnering with leaders and organizations in the community proved to be critical to help spread the message.
“It truly takes everyone’s assistance to bring this all together,” said Williams. “Our mission was strictly focused on the therapeutics line of effort under OWS, but all partnerships made will be critical when it comes time to ration out the vaccine.”
O’Neil said he is very happy with the vaccine news however, plasma donations are still needed to help our country get through the next several months in which, unfortunately, many people will continue to become hospitalized.
“If you have recovered, then please know that you have antibodies within you that can save lives,” he said.
“Please become a donor.”