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'They call it liquid gold'

Grassroots Orthodox effort in NY helps bring antibody treatment into mainstream

In early 2020, donors recruited by the Covid Plasma Initiative supplied 50% of the nation’s plasma, also demonstrating the treatment’s efficacy and paving the way to widespread use

  • Zeldy Oppen, right, with a nurse at a Covid Plasma Initiative plasma drive. (Courtesy)
    Zeldy Oppen, right, with a nurse at a Covid Plasma Initiative plasma drive. (Courtesy)
  • A man donates plasma at the Jewish Children's Museum plasma drive, Brooklyn, New York, January 27, 2021. (Courtesy/Anash.org)
    A man donates plasma at the Jewish Children's Museum plasma drive, Brooklyn, New York, January 27, 2021. (Courtesy/Anash.org)
  • A man at the Covid Plasma Initiative's plasma drive at the Jewish Children's Museum, Brooklyn, New York, January 27, 2021. (Courtesy/Anash.org)
    A man at the Covid Plasma Initiative's plasma drive at the Jewish Children's Museum, Brooklyn, New York, January 27, 2021. (Courtesy/Anash.org)
  • A man donates plasma at the Covid Plasma Initiative's plasma drive at the Jewish Children's Museum, Brooklyn, New York, January 27, 2021. (Courtesy/Anash.org)
    A man donates plasma at the Covid Plasma Initiative's plasma drive at the Jewish Children's Museum, Brooklyn, New York, January 27, 2021. (Courtesy/Anash.org)
  • A man donates plasma at the Covid Plasma Initiative's plasma drive at the Jewish Children's Museum, Brooklyn, New York, January 27, 2021. (Courtesy/Anash.org)
    A man donates plasma at the Covid Plasma Initiative's plasma drive at the Jewish Children's Museum, Brooklyn, New York, January 27, 2021. (Courtesy/Anash.org)

NEW YORK — Yaakov Halpern got so sick with COVID-19 last March he passed out twice. Each time a local Hatzalah volunteer ambulance crew responded to his home in New York to help. And each time they did, Halpern promised he would do whatever he could to help others who fell ill with the potentially fatal virus.

Halpern’s chance came sooner than expected when a friend called asking him to get tested for COVID-19 antibodies and, if his numbers were high enough, consider donating his plasma. A few days later Halpern registered at a local blood bank, where he spent the next few hours reclining in a donor chair as a bag filled with his blood.

He’s donated nine times since.

“Anybody who had COVID and has antibodies and is walking around can donate. They can do something to help save somebody’s life,” said Halpern, a resident of the Five Towns area of Long Island.

Halpern is one of thousands of Orthodox Jews to donate plasma as part of the Covid Plasma Initiative, launched last spring just as the pandemic hit New York State.

Today the all-volunteer Orthodox nonprofit has a presence in more than a dozen states. Aside from organizing plasma drives and antibody testing, it does educational outreach about monoclonal antibodies and helps link patients with infusion centers that offer the treatment.

So many people were dying. It was nonstop… Then, while all this was going on I got a call from a friend. I could be part of an initiative that was giving life to so many people

“During March, April, and May, so many people were dying. It was nonstop. These were people I knew growing up, friends of family. It was the darkest, bleakest time. Then, while all this was going on I got a call from a friend. I could be part of an initiative that was giving life to so many people,” said CPI director Zeldy Oppen.

Zeldy Oppen, right, with a nurse at a Covid Plasma Initiative plasma drive. (Courtesy)

People who’ve recovered from COVID-19 are likely to have high levels of antibodies toward the virus in their blood. Their plasma can be transfused into other COVID-19 patients to help them recover.

They call it liquid gold because of its color and because for every convalescent plasma donation, about three-and-half people can be treated

“They call it liquid gold because of its color and because for every convalescent plasma donation, about three-and-half people can be treated,” Oppen said.

To date, CPI has helped collect 30,000 donations, or an estimated 100,000 units of plasma.

A chance meeting

This isn’t Oppen’s first foray into the nonprofit world. She co-founded Yad B’Yad, a community based mental health organization, in 2012. In 2018, she launched Imadi, an organization providing support for families with a member who has a mental illness. Oppen was working on launching her third nonprofit when the COVID-19 pandemic struck — so she shelved the project and tended to her family.

But like millions of other Americans, Oppen and her family weren’t immune. The entire household caught the virus. It was then that she got a call about joining CPI.

As Oppen explained, the nonprofit came about because of a chance meeting between two men desperately searching for an effective COVID-19  therapy.

Mordy Serle, left, holds a plasma bag as Chaim Lebovits donates. (Courtesy)

It was mid-March and Mordy Serle’s father-in-law was hospitalized with a severe case of COVID-19. A few days after he was admitted, Serle stumbled on a news snippet about convalescent plasma therapy. He immediately started trying to get it for his father-in-law. His rabbi put him in touch with a man named Chaim Lebovits, who was also searching for somewhere to get plasma therapy.

The two men then connected with Dr. Shmuel Shoham, who led a Johns Hopkins University study on using plasma to treat people. Meanwhile, the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Michael Joyner was also exploring convalescent plasma therapy as an option.

Joyner said the Covid Plasma Initiative helped make it possible for plasma to be given to a large enough population nationwide that it helped demonstrate the safety and efficacy that had been seen in other cohorts and studies, particularly when used early on in the disease.

“The high use in the US was facilitated by community partners helping to drive and coordinate donations, which led to more use. So, it was virtuous cycle,” Joyner said.

In short order, the small group became a wide coalition that included major hospitals such as Mount Sinai Hospital, NY Langone Medical Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering, the Mayo Clinic and Northshore Hospital System.

A few conference calls later and “we were off to the races,” Serle said. “It was so urgent, we were eating, drinking, and dreaming about plasma.”

The urgency of their task meant little room for marking major life events.

A man donates plasma at the Covid Plasma Initiative’s plasma drive at the Jewish Children’s Museum, Brooklyn, New York, January 27, 2021. (Courtesy/Anash.org)

One of those conference calls took place minutes after the birth of Serle’s daughter, and one of the first plasma drives was held in Baltimore during Passover, just days after Lebovits’s brother Yitzchak died of cancer.

“If it’s life or death, you do it. It was so urgent. Very rarely in life do you get the chance to see how effort translates into results,” Serle said.

First wave

In the first wave of COVID, CPI’s network of Orthodox donors supplied over 50 percent of the nation’s convalescent plasma, Oppen said.

Early on, the organization had to decide whether the donated plasma would remain in the Orthodox community or go to the rest of the nation. It wasn’t a tough call.

We basically decided to flood the market with it so that any patient, anywhere in the country who needs it can have access to it

“We knew not everyone in the country has the same access to medical care that we do, and so we wanted to make sure it is widely available. We basically decided to flood the market with it so that any patient, anywhere in the country who needs it can have access to it,” Lebovits said.

As an importer of wholesale shoes, Lebovits applied what he knew about efficiency and distribution to help blood banks streamline the process for donor intake forms. He also advised on how to get more people into donation chairs.

A man donates plasma at the Covid Plasma Initiative’s plasma drive at the Jewish Children’s Museum, Brooklyn, New York, January 27, 2021. (Courtesy/Anash.org)

One approach was working with blood centers to set up plasma drives in different venues other such as the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn, a synagogue in Baltimore, and an industrial park in Lakewood, New Jersey.

“We were innovative, industrious. We did whatever it took for us to figure out how to save lives most efficiently and effectively,” Oppen said.

The initiative now operates a 24/7 hotline that helps connect people to infusion centers.

Since CPI got off the ground it has partnered with dozens of organizations and synagogues, including the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel.

A man at the Covid Plasma Initiative’s plasma drive at the Jewish Children’s Museum, Brooklyn, New York, January 27, 2021. (Courtesy/Anash.org)

More recently, CPI has been helping people get access to monoclonal antibody treatment. Covered by Medicare, the treatment can help prevents patients from being hospitalized and significantly mitigate the effects of COVID-19.

“Together we [at CPI] all knew we could make things happen. The medical institutions realized we in the Orthodox community had the network and could make it happen,” Oppen said. “I took this dark time and looked at it as a way to where I could maximize help. I feel privileged, and that I have a chance to help save lives.”

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