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A woman finishes donating convalescent plasma in Seattle in April. Photo: Karen Ducey/Getty Images

The FDA's controversial decision on Sunday to issue an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19 patients has put new attention on the process of giving plasma.

Why it matters: If convalescent plasma does help mitigate the disease — a big and entirely unsettled if — then donating could be one of the most important things recovered patients could do. But the experience is a little different from standard blood donation.

Whole blood — what most of us are used to donating at blood drives — is, as the name suggests, everything in your blood: red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and plasma.

  • Plasma is the straw-colored liquid component that makes up blood. Roughly 90% of it is water, but the rest includes nutrients, minerals, hormones, proteins — and antibodies that help fight infection.

How it works: Plasma donation, though, is a little different, as I learned when giving convalescent plasma after recovering from a (thankfully mild) COVID-19 infection this spring.

  • To make a convalescent plasma donation at the New York Blood Center, I first needed to show proof of my positive COVID-19 test results, as well as indicate that I had been symptom-free for at least 14 days.
  • After an on-site test to prove that I actually had antibodies that could be shared — and a very extensive quiz about any past behaviors that might cause my blood to be tainted and rejected — I was taken into the plasma donation room.
  • There a sterile needle was inserted into my left arm (I'm right-handed), and my blood was siphoned off into an apheresis machine, where it spun in a centrifuge that separated out the plasma. The remainder of my blood flowed back into my arm.
  • The donation process was no more uncomfortable than giving whole blood — the needle does pinch, but it was longer, about 50 minutes, compared to 10 for whole blood.

Of note: If you'd rather have the process explained to you by Walter White, you can watch this video from July of actor Bryan Cranston giving COVID-19 convalescent plasma.

The bottom line: What I don't know is whether the plasma I donated made a difference for a COVID-19 patient. The science — despite the FDA's move — remains far from clear.

Go deeper

WH coronavirus task force: States must "flatten the curve" to sustain health system

A walk-up Covid-19 testing site in San Fernando, California, on Nov. 24, ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

The White House coronavirus task force warned states "the COVID risk to all Americans is at a historic high" and to brace for another surge following Thanksgiving, per a report that emerged Wednesday.

Driving the news: "If you are under 40, you need to assume you became infected during the Thanksgiving period if you gathered beyond your immediate household," said the report, dated Nov. 29, first published by the Center for Public Integrity.

Dec 3, 2020 - Health

U.S. exceeds 100,000 COVID-related hospitalizations for the first time

People wait outside the Emergency room of the Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park, California on Dec 1. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

More than 100,200 Americans were hospitalized as of Wednesday due to the coronavirus for the first time since the outbreak began in early 2020, per the COVID Tracking Project.

The big picture: The milestone comes as health officials anticipated cases to surge due to holiday travel and gatherings. The impact of the holiday remains notable, as many states across the country are only reporting partial data.

Dec 3, 2020 - World

Azar's UN remarks to take aim at China

Alex Azar during a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing. Photo credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is expected to give a speech at a special session of the UN General Assembly on Thursday that hails U.S. progress on coronavirus vaccines while criticizing — though not directly naming — China.

Why it matters: U.S. government officials are concerned that China will use the UN special session to spread disinformation about the origins of the virus and China's early missteps in handling the pandemic.

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