Antibody testing for virus comes here

Blanca Rowland, a donor service specialist, checks on equipment while donations take place at OneBlood in The Villages. OneBlood is testing all donated blood for coronavirus antibodies.

The question most asked by residents of the Daily Sun in recent weeks is “Where can I get coronavirus antibody testing?” Now OneBlood is stepping forward with the answer to those who agree to donate blood. The blood bank serving The Villages and parts of Central Florida has announced it will test all blood donations for the possibility that a donor had COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, even if they may not have experienced symptoms. “We have some people who have never donated before who have stepped up,” said Pat Michaels, OneBlood spokesman. Researchers say they do not yet know if being infected, and producing antibodies, provides immunity. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization say it’s not yet clear if an infection provides immunity. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has repeatedly touted testing for COVID-19 antibodies as a signal that immunity may be lurking, undetected, among the population. He’s said that drive-thru virus test sites around the state will soon have lanes dedicated to antibody tests.

Benefits of Donation

OneBlood is working with DeSantis and Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees to provide de-identified data on the number of people testing positive and their location.

“This information will help in decision making for reopening the economy,” said Susan Forbes, OneBlood’s senior vice president for corporate communications and public relations.

There is still no proven treatment for COVID-19, but researchers are exploring the potential of infusing sick patients with plasma from recovered patients.

In April, OneBlood started working with area hospitals to distribute blood from recovered patients, called convalescent plasma, to critically ill hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Eduardo Oliveira, executive medical director for critical care for AdventHealth Central Florida division, said the therapy, although still is not proven to work, is promising.

“From a medical standpoint, it makes sense because we are giving folks antibodies to be able to neutralize the virus,” he said. “Critically ill patients haven’t built those up yet.”

Testing Explained

When the body comes into contact with a foreign substance, such as the coronavirus, it makes proteins called antibodies to fight it. A blood test can detect presence of these antibodies.

Antibody testing won’t determine if someone currently has COVID-19 because it can take one to three weeks after infection to make antibodies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And antibody testing doesn’t guarantee you had or did not have COVID-19, said Dr. Jeff Lowenkron, chief medical officer of The Villages Health, because false positives and negatives can occur.

“Sometimes antibodies stay around and provide long-term immunity, and other times they fade away and you can be infected again,” he added.

Blood donations to receive antibody testing could help the search for a vaccine, which would stimulate antibodies and build immunity without the patient becoming infected.

Local Donation

Blood donation is beneficial, Michaels said, whether directly helping COVID-19 patients or keeping the blood supply up.

“Giving blood was always a very noble thing to do,” he said. “Now, blood donation takes on a whole new meaning, a whole new power.”

When Sherrie Marks posted on social media that she was sponsoring a one-day blood drive, appointments for the “Big Red Bus” filled up that first day.

“I was headed toward making a wait list when staff at OneBlood decided to send a second bus,” Marks said.

When both red buses parked May 19 near Marks’ home in the Village of Fenney, she waved from her driveway as neighbors arrived to roll up their sleeves.

As one of the first donors, Brenda Morris, of the Village of Hemingway, climbed off the bus and smiled.

She donates blood at least four times a year, “to give the gift to someone else,” Morris said.

When Florida businesses and schools closed to avoid pandemic exposure, OneBlood events in various communities across the state also were canceled.

Pandemic or not, the need for blood never stops. So OneBlood staff was happy to send a second bus to Fenney when the response was so positive, Forbes said.

After moving from Wisconsin to Fenney one year ago, David Larsen and his wife, Lynne, were new to the Big Red Bus but not to donating blood.

“We have been giving blood for a long time, a lot of years,” David said. “There is no substitute for blood, you know. And it is always needed.”

This time, they also were drawn to give by the added incentive of antibody testing because they both came down with a nasty cold in January, Lynne said.

Donating this time was a little different than usual because donors and patients both wore masks, she said.

“It wasn’t too over-the-top weird, though,” Lynne said, laughing. “It’s a very big gift to community, and it makes you feel better afterwards.”

Staff Writer Sherri Coner contributed to this report. Senior writer Ciara Varone can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5395, or ciara.varone@thevillagesmedia.com.