Mercy Hospital Joplin has treated its first COVID-19 patient with convalescent plasma therapy, but the patient still will be on the road to recovery from home, doctors say.

Martina Belland, who lives in McDonald County, was recently discharged from Mercy Joplin after receiving the new therapy, said Eden Esguerra, an infectious disease specialist. Plasma therapy is being studied by researchers to determine whether it is an effective treatment for COVID-19.

"If it works, can you imagine how beneficial this will be?" Esguerra said. "The patient that we gave it to did very well. I'm not going to say that it's the convalescent plasma that was solely responsible for her getting better — we can't say that; we have to study all the patients who receive plasma."

The patient, who was described by Esguerra as middle-aged with several medical problems, was diagnosed with COVID-19 nine days before she was hospitalized at Mercy. She actually had been previously treated for it but continued to have a fever and weakness, Esguerra said.

"Her chest X-ray did not look good," the doctor said. "She was requiring oxygen, and she needed to be put on a ventilator. She was in the ICU, of course. She was treated with antibiotics and was not doing well."

After a few more days, Esguerra suggested convalescent plasma therapy, for which the patient met the criteria.

The therapy is an experimental treatment that some doctors are using for people with severe COVID-19. According to Mayo Clinic, it works like this: People who have recovered from COVID-19 have antibodies — proteins the body uses to fight off infections — to the disease in their blood. The blood from people who have recovered is called convalescent plasma; plasma is the liquid portion of the blood.

Researchers hope that convalescent plasma can be given to people with severe COVID-19 to boost their ability to fight the virus. It also might help keep people who are moderately ill from becoming more ill and experiencing COVID-19 complications, the health care system said.

Thousands of coronavirus patients in hospitals around the world have been treated with convalescent plasma — including more than 20,000 in the U.S. — with little solid evidence so far that it makes a difference. One recent study from China was unclear, while another from New York offered a hint of benefit.

The new coronavirus has infected nearly 9 million people worldwide and killed more than 460,000, according to official tallies believed to be underestimates. With no good treatments yet, researchers are frantically studying everything from drugs that tackle other viruses to survivor plasma — a century-old remedy used to fight infection before modern medicines came along.

The historical evidence is sketchy, but convalescent plasma’s most famous use was during the 1918 flu pandemic, and reports suggest that recipients were less likely to die. Doctors still dust off the approach to tackle surprise outbreaks, like SARS, a cousin of COVID-19, in 2002, and the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, but even those recent uses lacked rigorous research.

Esguerra notes that because the therapy is still being studied, there are plenty of unanswered questions about it. Is the plasma enough to help patients recover? How long could the antibodies in the plasma protect a patient from COVID-19? What are the side effects?

For Esguerra's patient, however, the therapy seemed to help. She came off the ventilator the following day and was moved out of the intensive care unit shortly afterward.

The patient was discharged from Mercy Joplin last week. She needed a walker because of ongoing weakness, Esguerra said, and some of her family members are also at home trying to recover from COVID-19.

"I think she will recover fairly quickly because she's determined," Esguerra said.

The doctor urged residents to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help curb the spread of the coronavirus: Wear a mask when going out, stay at least 6 feet away from other people and wash your hands frequently. She said these measures will likely be "just how things are" until a vaccine is found, and she asked that the public not get complacent in their safety precautions.

"We're sick and tired of COVID, and we're thinking in the back of our minds that COVID is old news, but unfortunately, it's here to stay, and we don't know how long this is going to last," Esguerra said. "It has turned our world upside down, and it's something we need to accept as a new reality."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Emily Younker is the managing editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.

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