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New program gives area veterans with COVID-19 quicker access to treatment

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    Asheville, NC (WLOS) — The Western North Carolina VA Health Care System has partnered with the Mayo Clinic for a special treatment program to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program allows plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients to be donated, screened and used for treatment in current patients.

Health experts believe that people who recover from COVID-19 can do so, in part, because they have antibodies which can fight off the virus. Antibodies exist in plasma and plasma can be pulled from the blood.

The program was successfully approved on May 5, after the Health Care System’s Research Office reviewed options for how the treatment could be provided at Charles George VA Medical Center.

Dr. Khalid Bashir, the principal investigator who has been in communication with Mayo Clinic personnel, said in a news release the health care system’s involvement with the program to this point has been to acquire convalescent plasma for sick patients. He also said anyone who wanted to be considered as a donor should contact a local blood bank.

Dr. Brian Peek, associate chief of staff for research and development in Asheville, said inclusion in the program makes the local system stand out in the fight against COVID-19.

“This is truly a unique time,” Peek said in a news release. “The Western North Carolina VA Health Care System is partnering outside of the Veterans Health Administration to work with national experts to combat this virus in our hometown.”

Amber Goetschius, research program specialist, agreed and said just getting approved for the treatment was no simple feat.

“New treatments such as this are only available through very specific pathways called expanded access programs,” she said in the news release. That’s in order to ensure the safety of the patients and to ensure that the treatments are only used in the most appropriate patients. “Our facility leadership worked with physician specialists and research to develop policies and agreements with Mayo Clinic – one of the country’s leading research institutions.”

The local Health Care System was able to demonstrate the clinical expertise and the infrastructure to appropriately deliver the cutting-edge care to patients, she added.

“Once the many documents were in place and signed, our doctors were able to consider this product – which would not otherwise have been available – for treatment of our patients,” Goetschius said in the release. “Within one day of having this option, a patient was identified and had received the treatment.”

But, Dr. Timothy Burns, research pharmacist, said the situation had its own unique set of challenges.

“This type of treatment carries the difficulty of how to obtain informed consent because patients are usually unable to provide consent when they need the treatment,” Burns said in the news release. “If another person comes in to provide consent, they would then be exposed to a higher risk environment.”

In this instance, Burns arranged consent to be provided by a family member at Charles George VA Medical Center’s drive-through pharmacy.

Peek said without the research program, Health Care System veterans would have to be evaluated and referred to another medical center for other treatment options such as this.

“In addition to increasing treatment availability, we stand out by having our clinicians involved in the use of new therapies and interacting with experts around the country in the early stages of treatment advances,” Peek said. “This brings the best care to our VA population.”

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