In a first for Utah, a COVID-19 sufferer receives plasma transfusion from a recovered patient

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Murray • Moises Lemus got to talk via FaceTime with his wife, Cynthia, on Tuesday — the first time he has spoken to her since April 6, when doctors put her on a ventilator to treat her severe case of COVID-19.

She was still groggy, having been in a medically induced coma for two weeks while relying on the ventilator, but “I know she could hear me,” her husband told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Cynthia Lemus, a 24-year-old flight attendant from Magna, was the first person in Utah to receive a new investigational treatment — involving the transfusion of blood plasma — that doctors say could help those who suffer from COVID-19.

“We are taking plasma from people who have recovered, through a donation program, and are providing it to people who have the virus,” Brandon Webb, chairman of the COVID-19 Therapeutics team at Intermountain Healthcare, said at a news conference Tuesday.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Left to right, Brandon Webb, chair of Intermountain Healthcare’s COVID-19 Therapeutics team and Daanish Hoda, a hematology expert and director of its Hematologic Malignacy Department, on April 21, 2020. Intermountain is participating in a national protocol that allows the use of plasma donated from people who have recovered from COVID-19 to be given to people who still have the virus.

Doctors gave Cynthia Lemus a transfusion Friday, using donated plasma sent from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. The Mayo is leading the still-experimental treatment protocol, which was launched recently by the Food and Drug Administration.

Lemus was in critical condition when she was treated Friday, said Daanish Hoda, director of Intermountain’s hematologic malignancy department. At noon Tuesday, Hoda said that her status had improved in the previous 48 hours, though she was still in critical condition.

Moises Lemus said doctors Tuesday took his wife off an ECMO machine, which oxygenates blood and acts as a temporary substitute for the lungs. He takes that as a positive sign that she is getting better.

“We don’t know if it was her own body that is starting to heal, or if it was expedited by the plasma,” Moises Lemus said. “That’s what we’re waiting to find out.”

Cynthia Lemus tested positive for the coronavirus March 31, and Moises Lemus, 34, tested positive April 1, he said. For several days, the couple stayed home and tried to ride out the illness.

“It’s scary to know you have COVID-19 in general,” he said. “But we thought, ‘We’re young, we’ll be OK.’ Little did we know, everybody gets to experience it in different ways.”

Their fevers spiked to 102 and 103 degrees.

“We took medicine. My fever would go down, hers not so much,” he said. “Three days in, I started feeling chest pains, feeling like somebody was standing on top of me. … It would hit us, and then it would go away.”

By the fifth day, with the fevers persisting and both of them struggling to breathe, Moises tried to convince Cynthia to go to the emergency room. “We waited it out one day,” he said, and that was one day too many.

(Photo courtesy of the Lemus family) Cynthia and Moises Lemus on vacation. Cynthia Lemus became the first Utahn to receive an experimental treatment for COVID-19, a transfusion of plasma from someone who had recovered from the disease.

They went to the ER at Intermountain on April 5, and doctors said Cynthia’s oxygen levels were low enough that she should stay at the hospital. Moises went home to quarantine, and spoke to Cynthia one last time on April 6 — just before she was put on a ventilator and sedated, so she wouldn’t pull at the tube going down her throat.

The idea behind the transfusion protocol is that a recovered COVID-19 sufferer’s immune system creates antibodies to fend off the coronavirus — and that plasma from that person would carry antibodies to someone still fighting the disease.

About 200 COVID-19 patients nationwide have been given plasma transfusions from people who have recovered from the coronavirus, Hoda said.

The FDA considers the treatment “investigational” — in other words, it’s still being tested. But, according to the FDA, limited data from China suggests it could “lessen the severity or shorten the length of illness caused by COVID-19.”

“We hope there is a benefit, but we can’t guarantee it,” Hoda said.

“To us,” said Moises Lemus, “it’s something that gives us a little bit of hope.”

Right now, Webb said, the treatment will be offered on a case-by-case basis to COVID-19 patients who are hospitalized, but do not fall into some of the high-risk categories for the virus.

Doctors said they hope people who have recovered from COVID-19 will donate their plasma, and the American Red Cross is developing a system to make such donations easier. To register, potential donors can go online to RedCrossBlood.org/plasma4covid.

Donors would have to meet the same screening standards as regular blood donors, as well as have access to their positive COVID-19 tests and be free of symptoms for 28 days.

“This gives someone who has had the virus something very tangible to do,” said Walter Kelley, medical director for the American Red Cross’ Utah chapter.

Moises Lemus, who runs his own video production company, said that “once I’m finally clear and ready to go, you best believe I’ll be one of the first people to be there in the morning [to donate plasma]. When [Cynthia’s] up and ready, she’s going to do the same thing.”

Cynthia Lemus, he said, “has got a huge heart, and always looks out for people, always wants other people to do well. … She cares about everybody around her, and wants everybody around her to be happy and to be the best possible person they can be.”