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COVID-19 plasma treatment and antibody testing reaches Flagstaff
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COVID-19 plasma treatment and antibody testing reaches Flagstaff

Northern Arizona Healthcare

As positive cases of COVID-19 approach 750 in Coconino County, some of the newest forms of treatments and testing have arrived to address this still-growing population.

In a press briefing last week, Northern Arizona Healthcare (NAH) announced the start of convalescent plasma treatment for COVID-19 patients, a promising treatment that uses plasma donated from individuals who have recovered from the disease and thus have the antibodies needed to fight it.

As of last week, three coronavirus patients in Flagstaff Medical Center had undergone these transfusions, but John Mougin, chief quality officer for NAH, said it will be difficult to see results until larger numbers of patients can be treated with convalescent plasma.

“When we started out with this pandemic, we really didn’t have any treatment options. I think they’re starting to show up,” Mougin said. “We will continue to monitor the research that’s going on and investigate treatment options as they become available. We’re hopeful we’ll have more and more options as time goes.”

For now, with limited amounts of this plasma available statewide, Mougin said there is strict selection criteria for patients who can qualify for the plasma treatment. The healthcare organization is now looking for more donors locally and statewide, as well as advocating for plasma donation sites to be established in northern Arizona. Mougin said recovered patients interested in donating currently have to travel to Phoenix to do so.

Mougin referenced the American Red Cross and Vitalant, which have both launched initiatives to collect convalescent plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients who meet a set of specific requirements, including a verified prior diagnosis of COVID-19 and a lack of symptoms.

Sue Thew, spokesperson for Vitalant in Arizona, said because these plasma donations are still new, with Vitalant serving less than 20 COVID-19 plasma donors statewide since it began April 15, the organization does not have any definitive plans to accept convalescent plasma donations in northern Arizona.

Such collections are being done at Vitalant’s donor centers in the Phoenix area, but Thew said most of the organization’s mobile blood drives have the equipment to draw convalescent plasma. There have not yet been any qualified applicants from northern Arizona, although as more people begin recovering from COVID-19, Thew expects more people will become eligible to donate.

“We’re going to try to make it happen because convalescent plasma donations are a high priority for us, but it’s got to be worked into our schedules with the blood drives we have scheduled in northern Arizona,” Thew said. “As soon as we have donors who meet the qualifications and are able to move forward, we’ll look at the resources we have available to serve those donors.”

Antibody testing

With the disease present in the state for just over two months, groups such as Sonora Quest Laboratories are now offering antibody testing, an important middle step to determine if a person has the antibodies needed for convalescent plasma treatment.

Patients who have a doctor’s note and are symptom-free can be tested at Sonora Quest’s Cedar Avenue location in Flagstaff, which had tested 93 total patients as of Monday, said Brian Mochon, scientific medical director of Sonora Quest’s Infectious Diseases Division. Friday, the organization announced it would be opening its antibody testing to everyone, even those without a doctor’s order or insurance. The test is $99 and is available by appointment only.

Statewide, the positivity rate is 3.66% of the 11,883 of these tests conducted since April 24, when Arizona testing began. The first Flagstaff patient was seen three days later. Mochon said numbers of those tested are still too small to present an accurate positive rate for Flagstaff.

The Sonora Quest test searches for the second of two types of antibodies that appear to protect the body from the virus. These antibodies develop about 10 to 15 days after the onset of symptoms, unlike the first, which develops about three to seven days into the process. Mochon said Sonora Quest chose to focus on the second antibodies because they are more indicative of someone who has resolved the infection. He said they could also possibly explain the low statewide positivity rate: if a test for the later antibodies is conducted too early, before they develop, even if an individual tests positive for COVID-19, they can test negative for these antibodies.

When used correctly, Mochon said, the antibody tests are not only useful in identifying potential plasma donors, they can also play a role as statewide elective surgeries are restored.

“These antibody tests are not definitive tests for saying you have protection against coronavirus, but there’s some comfort in knowing that if you are producing antibodies, there may be some more confidence in doing the procedure,” Mochon said.

Statewide, Sonora Quest is currently able to conduct 3,000 of its antibody tests daily, with hopes to be able to hit 10,000 per day by the end of the month. The organization is beginning initial discussions about at-home antibody tests similar to those launched by the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen).

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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