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Albany Med begins plasma therapy on sickest COVID-19 patients

Albany Med begins plasma therapy on sickest COVID-19 patients

Development comes as state records 799 virus deaths in single day
Albany Med begins plasma therapy on sickest COVID-19 patients
Albany Med CMO Dr. Fred Venditti, left, and CEO Dennis McKenna are shown in March.
Photographer: Erica Miller

ALBANY — As New York recorded another new one-day high in COVID-19 deaths, Albany Medical Center physicians on Thursday performed their first antibody infusion on one of their sickest COVID patients.

Albany Med is among the first hospitals in the nation to gain federal approval to use the procedure on those fighting COVID-19. It will be reserved for the sickest of patients, those at risk of dying because they can’t beat back the infection on their own.

This convalescent plasma therapy is not a new concept or a new execution — it is higher-technology version of the same process used during the Spanish Influenza pandemic in 1918.

A well-functioning immune system in a strong person produces antibodies to fight off an infection. A weak or immunocompromised person may not be able to do this well enough to recover from an aggressive virus such as COVID-19.

The plasma of the recovering, or convalescent, patient will contain antibodies specific to COVID-19 for weeks or months after infection. It is hoped that pumping such plasma into the critically ill patient will spark a recovery.

“We are honored to have the ability to administer this experimental therapy as we fight this global pandemic,” Albany Med CEO Dr. Dennis McKenna said in a news release.

The plasma for this first procedure came from an Albany Med employee who contracted COVID-19 and recovered. Community donations are being sought for future procedures: Those who have had confirmed cases of the virus and recovered can call the hospital at 518-262-9340.

In his daily video briefing with McKenna, Albany Med Chief Medical Officer Dr. Fred Venditti said that within two weeks, the hospital hopes to start conducting a test that will confirm whether a person has had coronavirus and, if so, approximately how recently, based on what type of antibodies are present.

The COVID patient census at Albany Med was 76 on Thursday, up from 66 Wednesday and 60 on Tuesday, but many of the new patients are transfers from downstate. Thirty six were in intensive care unit settings.

McKenna said the 12-hospital regional partnership formed to fight the pandemic had at about 200 COVID patients in total Thursday and has been holding steady around 200, a good sign.

NO TIME TO RELAX

In his daily briefing Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sounded what’s become a familiar theme this week: Pain at the soaring death toll, optimism at the plummeting hospitalization rate and concern that the good news leads New Yorkers to return to their normal ways.

The death toll hit 7,067 Thursday morning, up 799 in the previous 24 hours, the most yet in a single day. Many of those dying were admitted to the hospital a week or even two weeks earlier, before social distancing and Cuomo’s extensive shutdown of the state’s public places began to slow the spread.

Also Thursday morning, the net increase in hospitalizations in the previous 24 hours was just 200, the least since March 18. New ICU placements and intubations also were the lowest since March 18.

And so in the space of a few minutes, Cuomo segued from hailing New Yorkers’ for apparently slowing the spread, to exhorting them to not relax with a sense of victory, to his decision to allow out-of-state funeral directors to work here because of all the deaths.

“If you ever told me that as governor I would have to take these actions, I couldn’t even contemplate where we are now,” he said.

In a related topic, Cuomo defended his decision to postpone scheduled salary increases for certain state workers. The state is facing a revenue shortfall projected at $10-$15 billion, Budget Director Robert Mujica said, and will probably wind up in the middle of that range. Cuomo said he could lay off state employees to help close that gap or not increase their pay for 90 days. He chose the pay freeze in hope that the federal government comes through with some more money for the cash-strapped state. The freeze affects about 80,000 workers and will net a savings of about $50 million over 90 days.

In another related topic, Cuomo and his secretary Melissa DeRosa gave an update on the state’s unemployment insurance claims system, repeatedly crashing under the onslaught of 810,000 applications since March 9. DeRosa explained that applicants who left even a single box blank on the application had been unable to submit it online, and were directed to call the Department of Labor; enough people repeatedly tried to call, failed to get through and tried again that the system would continually overload and shut down.

On Thursday evening, the system was taken offline and modified so that if a box was left blank, the applicant would be told not to call in, and to instead await a call from one of the roughly 1,000 people processing the applications. The new system was to go live later Thursday evening.

DeRosa said about 600,000 of the 810,000 applications have been processed successfully. None the 200,000-plus remaining will lose any of the money they are entitled to because of the delay.

In the four weeks from March 8 to April 4, 37,789 Capital Region residents submitted initial unemployment claims, up from 2,528 for the same period in 2019, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday. That’s 8 percent of the region’s 472,100-person workforce, as tallied in February by the Department of Labor. It estimated the region’s February unemployment rate at 3.9 percent.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

In other developments Thursday:

  • The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide reached 159,937. Across the Capital Region, Albany County had 379 confirmed cases, Fulton County 15, Montgomery County 28, Rensselaer County 79, Saratoga County 172, Schenectady County 167 and Schoharie County 12. Albany County recorded two more deaths.
  • Cuomo announced five new testing centers in minority communities downstate — one in the Bronx and two each in Queens and Brooklyn — as part of a continuing effort to gather data and determine why blacks and Hispanics are dying of COVID-19 at a rate well in excess of their percentage of the state’s population.
  • Cuomo announced the “New York Loves” effort to coordinate all foundations, philanthropies, not-for-profits, charities and other entities that want to help or donate to the state during the pandemic.
  • The state ruled that golf courses are not “essential businesses” and must shut down immediately.
  • Rivers Casino in Schenectady, continuing to deplete the stores of food left behind after its abrupt shutdown in mid-March, will provide holiday dinners this weekend to Ellis Hospital workers. Chef Brad Holub will prepare and package 100 meals of turkey, corn, potatoes, gravy, cranberries and pumpkin pie. A few casino volunteers will deliver 50 each to the hospital Saturday and Sunday. Other items in the Rivers freezer and pantry have been cooked up for Joseph’s House, Bethesda House, the SEAT center and homebound cancer patients.
  • The Broadalbin-Perth High School robotics team, the Nut Jobs, are using their 3-D printer to create face shields for Fulton County-area medical and emergency personnel. Working with the Robovines, a FIRST Tech Challenge robotics team from Ballston Spa, they’ve already printed and delivered nearly 200 and have requests for more.
  • Las Vegas Sands donated 1 million surgical masks to New York state and flew them from China to Albany International Airport on Thursday aboard a 767 airliner owned by its CEO, Sheldon G. Adelson.
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