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Supply for effective plasma treatment dwindles as Sarasota and Manatee see uptick in COVID-19 cases

“We realize the pandemic that we are in is a marathon,” said SMH President and CEO David Verinder. “We’ve known that all along, but we certainly are experiencing it.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with additional sourcing and links.

Sarasota and Manatee counties are breaking records as their positive test rate and number of new coronavirus cases both rose last week.

The whole state is seeing it, as more positive cases are reported amid an overall increase in testing.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports Manatee County confirmed 190 more cases last week, marking the most significant weekly total since the start of the pandemic. According to the newspaper, this past Monday, the county recorded a single-day record number of new cases; 73 people tested positive.

Sarasota County trails Manatee County for new cases -- but still reported 80 new positive tests last week, which was the most in seven-day span since early May, according to the paperThe Herald-Tribune says the most the county has reported in a single day is 21.

“Two weeks ago, I was actually celebrating the fact that the COVID ICUs were empty. We had discharged our last patient,” said Dr. Kirk Voelker.

Dr. Voelker is the director of clinical research for Sarasota Memorial Hospital and is a critical care specialist caring for COVID-19 patients in the ICU.

He’s celebrating no more, as SMH sees new COVID-19 patients at the hospital.

“We realize the pandemic that we are in is a marathon,” said SMH President and CEO David Verinder. “We’ve known that all along, but we certainly are experiencing it more and more.”

Right now, he says there are a total of 21 COVID-19 patients in their hospital and four of them in ICU.

“It seems that with the decrease in the incidents in COVID over the last few weeks, the population in general has thought that maybe this is going away,” Dr. Voelker said.

And because of that, Dr. Voelker says they are lacking convalescent plasma, a treatment Voekler says has become a go-to medicine for COVID patients.

“You want to do everything you can to help save these people’s lives and it does get scary when we don’t have a supply of medications to give them and this is the first time that we’ve had a problem getting the convalescent plasma,” Voelker said.

The CEO of SunCoast Blood Centers Scott Bush says they see the increase in demand and are begging recovered patients to come in a donate.

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“Right now, it’s a struggle,” Bush said. “We’ve only got seven [units] on our shelf and we are actively trying to find and get the message out to people to come back in and donate.”

To donate convalescent plasma, you must have had COVID-19 and recovered. Convalescent plasma is what is found in COVID-19 survivor’s blood system. It's an antibody being used to help the most serious cases of coronavirus.

“We are also offering the antibody test for those who think they have it,” Bush said. And it’s free of charge.

Donating plasma can save up to four lives each time you donate. Bush says a person can donate every 28 days.

Although official trials are not back on the effectiveness of convalescent plasma, Dr. Voelker says he sees the results firsthand.

“As the boots on the ground guy in the intensive care unit I can see people have high fevers, their heart is racing,” Voelker said. “We give them the plasma and it calms things down so we can see it calm down in just a few hours.”

Many health officials say they’re not surprised that cases are ticking up as the state reopens and more people become relaxed.

SMH says it’s not time to be alarmed as their COVID positive patients remain 2-3 percent of the total inpatient volumes.

“The uptick is small at this point and doctors are watching it, and warning people not to get complacent,” a spokesperson for SMH said. “Even people who are wearing masks need to take other precautions as well, like washing their hands frequently, and staying home if sick.”

Chuck Henry, the health officer for the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, said that during the first seven weeks of the pandemic 40 percent of those who contracted the virus in Sarasota County were hospitalized, but that’s down to 12 percent over the last seven weeks.

He says one reason fewer people are being hospitalized, relative to the number of positive cases could be a shift in who is getting infected. Right now, Sarasota is seeing more younger people text positive.

“I think if you look around in the community people are starting to become more relaxed about it,” Voelker said. “I think with the fact that it’s starting to have an uptick shows that it is real, it is still contagious and as contagious as we thought so.”

He’s urging people to wash their hands.

“Everybody is starting to relax on hand washing, they are focusing more on masks. I would encourage people to focus more on hand washing, and continue your social distancing,” Voelker said.

If you want to donate, Suncoast Blood Centers has set up a COVID hotline. If you think you’ve had COVID or have tested positive call 941-993-8119.

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