Baltimore, MD – Apr. 24, 2020 - On Wednesday, April 23, thousands of Orthodox Jewish people across several states participated in special blood-antibodies screening events. The one thing all participants had in common: having recovered from the dreaded COVID-19 virus.
With no cure or vaccine yet available and with all potential breakthrough drugs still in infant trial stages, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the globe, not to mention many Orthodox Jewish communities. However, ongoing research in notable laboratories has led those who have recovered from the virus to now engage in helping in its very fight. While sick with COVID, patients produce blood-antibodies which enables their bodies to fight the virus. Plasma, the liquid portion of the blood, contains these antibodies, and can be extracted through a routine process. Antibody rich plasma, called “COVID convalescent plasma”, can then be transfused into actively-ill patients to help them fight the disease. Although not a definitive therapy, early studies are promising that this treatment may help improve outcomes.
Due to the limited availability of COVID-19 tests throughout the earlier stages of the pandemic, there were far fewer confirmed cases and thus a more limited supply of potential plasma donors. To address this, in an effort to expand the availability of COVID convalescent plasma, the Mayo Clinic initiated an antibody titer tests to screen the blood of those who exhibited symptoms of the virus, but had not been tested by the COVID-19 nasal swab test. Researchers from Mayo began partnering with community health organizations in order to help identify those exhibiting the telltale COVID signs, yet not confirmed as potential plasma donors.
Early efforts and actions in the Orthodox Jewish communities in New York and New Jersey were undertaken by a few individuals who partnered with Agudath Israel of America to begin compiling and disseminating information. Over the next couple of weeks, more and more communities began to connect on the issue and engage with their local health facilities and organizations. The Maryland COVID Plasma Initiative was launched last week by a small group of askanim and medical professionals working in close contact with community rabbanim and organizations. While the goal of the initiative was to develop more COVID plasma, the first necessary step was to identify those undiagnosed community members whose blood may contain the COVID-19 antibodies.
Early on Tuesday, Lakewood Bikur Cholim was notified by the Mayo Clinic that their labs would accept 5,000 blood-antibody test units if testing would take place on Wednesday and delivered to their Rochester, Minnesota labs by Thursday morning. In turn, Lakewood Bikur Cholim reached out to other regional communities to offer a share in the opportunity. It was then that the Maryland COVID Plasma Initiative team sprang into action.
After a Tuesday evening robocall went out urging people who believe they were infected to participate, online registration opened up and nearly 500 people came forward with their information. Barely 12 hours later – late morning on Wednesday, Bais Yaakov High School played host for the testing, bringing out approximately 400 likely COVID-19 survivors together with a large group of dedicated volunteers to help make the event happen. Bais Yaakov’s large auditorium was the perfect venue, allowing the volunteer medical professionals to spread out, in an effort to uphold all social distancing protocols, while they were drawing the blood and preparing it for processing.
After each of the blood-antibodies drives were completed, the blood samples of nearly 5,000 people from the different communities were transported to Brooklyn, New York, where they were gathered before being flown to Mayo.
Over the next couple of days, the Mayo Clinic will identify which samples possess adequate antibodies to potentially fight COVID-19. After that point donors will be notified and plasma donations may begin, with the hopeful outcome of bringing benefit to those suffering from the virus.
“The sight and knowledge of so many people from so many different communities coming together in an effort to engage in potentially life-saving activities, was a true moment of Mi k’acmcha Yisroel, and a Kiddush Hashem”, said Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, executive director of Agudath Israel of Maryland, and one of the committee members.
The Maryland COVID Plasma Initiative wishes to thank the many organizations and volunteers who gave selflessly of their time and expertise to make the first step of this critical process so effective and successful. As we now move into the initiative’s second phase, we reiterate that appreciation, while also offering a tefillah that this effort brings forth refuos and yeshuos to those who need it.