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Gary Dalgaard donates convalescent plasma in April at UW Health in Madison. The American Red Cross says it is urgently seeking plasma donations to help treat COVID-19 patients.

In Wisconsin, 38,633 patients are classified as recovered from COVID-19.

The American Red Cross is reaching out to those survivors to encourage them to donate convalescent plasma to help others join that select group.

The call is in response to what regional Red Cross spokeswoman Sue Thesenga characterized as an "emergency plasma shortage."

"These convalescent plasma products are going out faster than donations are coming in, so we have an emergency shortage of these potentially life-saving products," Thesenga said.

Convalescent plasma, collected only from fully recovered COVID-19 patients who are 17 or older, has antibodies that might help seriously ill patients in their attempt to overcome the virus. The collection process takes longer than a traditional blood donation because it involves drawing blood from one arm, sending it through a high-tech machine that extracts the plasma and then returning red blood cells and platelets to the donor along with some saline.

Plasma donors must wait at least 28 days between donations, each of which can help up to three patients recover from the virus, according to the Red Cross.

Thousands of COVID-19 survivors have rolled up their sleeves to give their antibody-rich plasma since April, enabling the organization to collect and distribute more than 20,000 convalescent plasma products to hospitals nationwide.

And with the number of coronavirus cases surging across the United States and recently passing 4.2 million, the Red Cross has seen demand for convalescent plasma more than double over the last month, leading to the shortage.

"We want people to know that if they tested positive and now are fully recovered that they can help other people who have the virus," Thesenga said. "It's a chance to give somebody hope."

Maggie Kison of Eau Claire said last month she was the first recovered COVID-19 patient to donate plasma at the Eau Claire Red Cross Donor Center, one of the agency's more than 170 donation sites across the country. Kison and her daughter Ava both were diagnosed with the virus in late March shortly after Ava returned home for spring break from the college she attends in New Hampshire.

“I thought if there was something I could do to save a life, why wouldn’t I,” Maggie Kison said. "I felt it was the right thing to do.”

Ava followed her mother’s example shortly thereafter.

Maggie Kison said the center's staff does a nice job of being patient and comforting, adding, "If you have a fear of needles, the Red Cross is very understanding and will help you."

Plasma treatment appears helpful in some situations, Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese has said, encouraging people who have been recovered from COVID-19 for at least two weeks to consider donating plasma.

"This is a very generous way to help others at this time when there is so much uncertainty," Thesenga said. "It's a great way to give back in a really meaningful way."

The Red Cross is reassuring potential donors that it has implemented additional precautions — including temperature checks, social distancing and face coverings for donors and staff — to protect the health of all those at blood drives and donation centers. 

With thousands of blood drives canceled in the last few months because of virus safety concerns, the Red Cross said there also is strong demand for regular blood donations. As an incentive to help, the organization is offering a free $5 Amazon gift card to all donors of blood, platelets or plasma between Saturday and Sept. 3. 

"This summer may feel different than others," Thesenga said, "but the one thing that remains the same is the urgent need for blood."