Plasma may help COVID-19 patients, Austin doctors say as they join national study—it definitely boosts morale
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Dr. MaryAnn Tran, an infectious disease specialist and regional section chief for Baylor Scott & White, just enrolled some of her COVID-19 patients in a treatment study.
With her approval, they will receive convalescent plasma therapy—or plasma infusions from donors who have recovered from COVID-19—as part of a national study overseen by the Mayo Clinic and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"Hopefully we'll get some more promising data and so we'll get better at knowing who the patients are who could benefit the most from it," Dr. Tran said.
Convalescent plasma therapy uses donations from recovered patients—or those who have convalesced—in the hopes that their antibodies aid those in need of treatment. Since We Are Blood began collecting convalescent plasma donations in mid-March, 91 COVID-19 patients have received treatment.
The wait time for infusions has dropped to less than 24 hours as the local nonprofit has shifted to operating at a surplus. Initially, the organization only accepted plasma from eligible donors who had tested positive for COVID-19, but now it is allowing people who have received positive antibody test results to donate, too. One donation can be used to treat multiple patients.
"For me, I didn't start enrolling patients until I heard from We Are Blood that there was ample supply," Dr. Tran said.
The expanded use of convalescent plasma therapy has improved morale for physicians and patients alike.
"It gives us a potential weapon to offer to patients where we otherwise don't have a lot of good options, outside of excellent support and care they're going to get in the hospital," Dr. Jeff Yorio, a hematologist-oncologist at Ascension Seton and Texas Oncology's Austin Central location. "It kind of gives us a chance to feel like we're actively doing something."
Convalescent plasma therapy has been used for more than a century to treat diseases such as the Spanish flu, diphtheria and Ebola, with varying levels of success. Despite this precedent, questions remain.
"There have been some patients where I have felt that their response was more rapid than I might otherwise expect, and I wonder if that's due to the convalescent plasma," said Dr. Matthew Robinson, an infectious disease physician at St. David's South Austin Medical Center. "But we have no way of knowing for sure."
While scientists know that patients exposed to the coronavirus develop antibodies, it is still unclear what level of immunity those antibodies confer—or how long they may last.
As the national study continues, Dr. Robinson said he is excited to learn more about potential uses of convalescent plasma therapy, such as to treat patients with symptoms of COVID-19 who do not require hospitalization in an effort to prevent the disease from progressing, or as a prophylactic for health care workers to help them avoid contracting the disease altogether.
Convalescent plasma therapy also provides a chance for those who have recovered from COVID-19 to help others.
Dr. Tran, Dr. Yorio and Dr. Robinson each said their patients are not only interested in receiving the treatment—but also in becoming donors themselves when it is safe for them to do so.
"People can contribute and feel like, 'I'm doing my part,'" Dr. Robinson said. "It's just another aspect of this—patients helping patients."
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Austin parents and grocery store shelves are feeling the effects of a nationwide baby formula shortage.
Caused mostly by a February recall due to contamination issues, followed by the Abbott Nutrition factory closure in Michigan, the shortage has left Austin shelves barren. However, earlier this week, U.S. officials announced a plan with the facility to restart production.
In the meantime, local parents in crisis have turned toward the Mother’s Milk Bank to keep their babies fed.
HEB on East 7th has been picked clean of formula and is limiting purchases. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The milk bank—which takes donations from lactating mothers and dispenses milk to babies in the NICU—has been helping feed upwards of 30 families in need as the formula supply tightens.
According to the bank’s executive director Kim Updegrove, Mother’s Milk Bank has seen an uptick in calls from parents with healthy babies in need of help since the shortage began.
“We aren't used to hearing from families with healthy infants,” Updegrove said. “They're typically very upset, angry, frustrated, sobbing—it's scary to not be able to feed your infants. So in the past few weeks, those calls have been significantly increasing.”
Mothers are only able to donate if they are within a year postpartum, so Updegrove said they are constantly bringing on and retiring donors. While donors had been on a 30% decline leftover from 2021 when the shortage began, Updegrove said the shortage has led to mass community interest and more than 90 prospective donors in just the past few days.
“We and other milk banks are experiencing significant interest from the community—becoming milk donors and helping to turn around this crisis,” Updegrove said. “Every infant needs to be fed, every one of us can relate to that need, and we need to make sure as a community that it happens.”
Whole Foods downtown was also cleaned out of typical formula. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
While you may still be able to find formula at places like Whole Foods—which currently has goat milk, soy and plant-based formula in stock—Updegrove said it might not be what a baby needs.
Updegrove said it is best to buy types that say “infant formula,” as they are FDA approved and will provide the nutrients, vitamins and minerals a baby needs. Plant-based, homemade, non-cow's milk or diluting formula may not provide the same nutritional value.
As the community navigates the shortage, Updegrove said the most important way to help out is to not panic buy or stockpile.
“This is a crisis for families,” Updegrove said. “This is the time for the community to gather together and figure out what everyone can do to help families with young infants.”
Next time you’re sitting at a red light in Austin, you may look over and see a car without a person at the driver’s wheel.
Autonomous vehicle tech company Argo AI has brought driverless operations to Austin and Miami, starting out with only company employees using the service. Later on, tests with Lyft and Walmart will carry out ride-sharing and grocery delivery services, with the help of a human safety operator. The company has already made moves on this front in Miami Beach where some Lyft passengers have used its autonomous vehicles with a human operator.
While its platform is designed for integration with multiple vehicle types, the test fleet uses the Ford Escape Hybrid and VW's all-electric ID.Buzz.
The Pittsburgh-based company says this progress on its autonomy platform has been more than five years in the making and boasted about reaching this milestone before others.
"Argo is first to go driverless in two major American cities, safely operating amongst heavy traffic, pedestrians and bicyclists in the busiest of neighborhoods," said Bryan Salesky, Founder and CEO of Argo AI.
Expect to see the autonomous cars on the road during daytime business hours as the tech aims to learn from a diversity of road infrastructure and driving behaviors.
The company, which is testing in eight cities in the U.S. and Europe, has brought its tech to Austin as the company looks to expand in densely-populated cities. In particular, Argo is looking at ridesharing, delivery and logistics companies for integrating its autonomous vehicles into their digital services.
Argo anticipates its service availability to someday cover more than 15 million people in Austin, Miami and Washington D.C.
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