As pandemic loses grip on Las Vegas, crucial plasma donations rebound

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Steve Marcus

Michael Morales donates plasma at CSL Plasma on Nellis Boulevard, Thursday, April 1, 2021. Donors spend much of thier time relaxing with a needle in their arm as a machine pulls out blood, separates the plasma, and reinfuses the red cells, white cells and platelets to the body. 

Wed, Apr 7, 2021 (2 a.m.)

At a CSL Plasma center in the east Las Vegas Valley, first-time donor Michael Morales overcame a fear of needles to give a unit of plasma, the protein-rich liquid blood component that transports blood cells throughout the body and is critical to clotting and fighting infection.

Morales’ brother-in-law is a regular plasma donor who turned him on to giving after noting that his usual crew had thinned out over the last few months because of the pandemic. Donors also receive compensation, which can be as high as $700 in the first month.

Plasma is used to produce therapies to treat bleeding disorders, edema, respiratory and neurological disorders, and immune deficiencies. Plasma donors can give twice a week, and he planned to do so, as soon as the 48-hour recovery window on his first donation allowed.

Vlasta Hakes, corporate affairs director for the multinational producer of blood plasma-based products Grifols, said plasma donation in general has gone up and down during the pandemic, following anxieties during virus waves and typical seasonal impacts. Physical distancing and appointment protocols have also limited how many donors centers can process.

She said the Las Vegas area — where Grifols operates three donation centers — is on the upswing as more people are vaccinated against the coronavirus and the usual winter slowdown closes out. The company markets the life-saving importance of donations.

Donor qualifications

To donate plasma, a person must:

• Be at least 18 years old

• Be in generally good health

• Weigh at least 110 pounds

• Not have gotten a tattoo or piercing in the prior four months

• Bring valid ID and proof of address and Social Security number

Additional requirements and screening may vary per donation center.

Source: CSL Plasma

Hakes said the average compensation of about $50 a donation is an incentive, but not the sole driver, especially as the government stimulus has helped people hit by the pandemic’s economic effects. (Payments vary by donor weight, location and promotions.)

“A lot of the patients that use plasma medicines have rare and chronic conditions and are more susceptible to COVID-19, so it’s even more important that they continue to get their medicines,” Hakes said.

Toby Simon, a senior medical director for the Florida-based CSL Plasma, agreed that people had concerns early in the pandemic about safety in centers, but once the company put in cleaning, screening and distancing protocols, people returned.

As an essential service, CSL centers never closed during the shutdowns.

“We’re continuing with that effort because there’s a tremendous need for the plasma product,” he said.

Plasma donation can take more than two hours for a first visit and about an hour to an hour and a half for subsequent visits, Simon said. Donors spend much of this time reclining with a needle in their arm as a machine pulls out blood, separates the plasma, and reinfuses the red cells, white cells and platelets to the body.

Earlier and more frequent diagnosis of immunodeficiencies have increased the demand for plasma products. There have also been pandemic-driven needs, such as the collection of convalescent plasma to help coronavirus patients’ recovery, and immunoglobulins for young people with multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, a rare but potentially serious complication of COVID-19.

“What I always try to emphasize is, the individuals who donate plasma are helping, really, hundreds of thousands of patients and they can really feel good about what they’re doing,” Simon said. “We make a number of different therapies from the plasma — we make at least two major therapies from every unit and then we have many additional specialized products.”

On a recent afternoon at the CSL Plasma center at Nellis Boulevard and Desert Inn Road, center manager Erica Wiley watched donors check in before getting comfortable in the chaise lounge-like donation beds.

She said the company doesn’t track why donors choose to come in, but she said many people do it to help others. Colleague Neville Bain, who oversees operations and quality in CSL’s five-location-wide Vegas market, agreed. He said people from all walks of life donate, and though money can be a motivator, not everyone needs it.

The walls and windows of the bright, clean and quiet clinic are covered with the altruistic message. One mural asks, “Hey Angel, where are you hiding your wings?”

Morales, the new donor, said his work with helping prepare rental homes for new tenants has been a little slow, but he also doesn’t need the money that comes with donating plasma.

“Anything I can do to help is a little better,” he said.

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