Healthcare workers who survived COVID-19 now donating their plasma

Posted at 4:49 PM, Jul 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-11 01:06:43-04

PHOENIX — The Valley's first large scale plasma drive is taking place inside a long-term care facility that was hit hard by COVID-19. The Glencroft Center for Modern Aging lost 36 patients and 87 employees tested positive for the virus over the last 5 months. Now, many of those employees who survived COVID-19 are giving a valuable gift to those still fighting for their lives: the gift of their plasma.

Christi Irwin has been an employee for the past 15 months and serves as the Vice President of Health Services for Providence Place, a facility that houses many patients requiring rehab, long-term care, and dementia care. She contracted the COVID-19 virus at the end of April. Irwin says it was right around the time when their dementia unit experienced an outbreak.

"One of the most serious symptoms I had is, I described it to people as if I was breathing through fiber glass. I could hear my lungs crackling," said Irwin who is grateful for only having, what she calls, a mild case of COVID-19.

Now symptom free, Irwin is one of 25 Glencroft employees who signed up to donate her plasma to help others who are much worse off than she was.

"I was on board right away. Having had COVID, having had the outbreak here at Providence Place and seeing what it can do to the long-term care community, and to the seniors in our community, I was on board immediately," said Irwin.

She added that even if her plasma could only help one other person, she would be happy.

What really hurt Irwin more during this pandemic, though, was losing a large chunk of her nursing staff, who walked off the job.

CEO of the Glencroft Center for Modern Aging, John Wenzlau, said it was tough seeing so many of their employees throw in the towel when the facility was going through a tough time.

"I think she lost about 40% of our employees. They just walked off the job because they were afraid," said Wenzlau.

Irwin added that she tried to convince them that they could reduce their risk of contracting the virus by following all their infection control protocols, good hygiene, and wearing their personal protective gear. However, she could not promise them that they would not get sick. It was not good enough for some who decided to quit.

"At the end of the day, it is a risk and it is up to them if they are willing to take that risk or not," said Irwin.

Now, all 87 employees who contracted COVID-19 have recovered and are back on the job. The facility has no COVID-19 positive employees today. According to information posted on a dashboard on their website, the facility has ten COVID-19 positive residents, a majority of them live “off-campus.”

Wenzlau also explained how the facility had opened an isolation wing and were allowing other facilities to use it as well.

The plasma donation drive was organized by Vitalant, the largest independent blood provider in the nation. Spokeswoman Sue Thew said she was grateful to see a company that had so many employees survive the virus step-up to help their community.

Vitalant partnered with 62 hospitals in Arizona to provide blood and plasma when needed. They said there is a great demand for convalescent plasma with COVID-19 antibodies right now.

"The demand is certainly greater than the number of donors," said Thew.

She added that one donor could potentially help two to five gravely ill patients, so the employees at Glencroft could collectively save 50-125 people suffering from COVID-19 in our hospitals.

"It is emotional for me to donate because one of our residents did get the plasma treatment. Somebody did that for him, and now, I can do it for someone else," said Irwin.

To find more plasma donors, Vitalant is screening all blood donations for COVID-19 antibodies right now. If you would like to find out if your blood contains COVID-19 antibodies, donating your blood will automatically get you those results as well. Vitalant is providing this service for blood donors until August 31.

To find out if qualify to donate plasma there's a checklist posted HERE.