Gail Murray was near death from COVID-19 in March when her doctors infused her with blood plasma, extracted from her son-in-law, containing coronavirus antibodies.
“I was so sick that I knew and had pretty much prepared in my mind that that was the way I was going to go. Not being with my family; not being able to see any of them,” Murray said Thursday.
“It was absolutely life changing to get that plasma. In just a few days, I went from thinking I was going to die to literally feeling, ‘Why am I in here? I’m ready to go home now,” she said.
Murray told her story during Gov. Ron DeSantis’ latest roundtable about the state’s COVID response. The event centered on “convalescent plasma”, a still-experimental therapy that has appeared to work in some patients. Her case had attracted attention from news organizations in the Panhandle, where the family lives.
She sat behind the big desk in the Florida Cabinet chamber flanked by her daughter, Theri Isaacs, son-in-law Steve Isaacs, and First Lady Casey DeSantis.
The governor presented their story as a case study in one way that COVID prevalence in Florida could provide an avenue for treatment, if people who’ve gotten over the virus donate blood plasma containing antibodies.
“All those folks who do have the antibody have an opportunity to help those who are still suffering from the disease. And you can do that by donating your blood” so that the plasma can be extracted, DeSantis said.
As of Wednesday, the virus had killed 8,913 people, according to Florida Department of Health data.
Florida Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville responded that the promise of convalescent plasma “cannot be overestimated.”
But she suggested the governor’s decision to highlight the treatment is just another instance when he followed the lead of President Trump, who enthused about the process only recently, and demonstrates “a serious lack of leadership” as children return to the classroom in Florida.
“It’s absurd that in the third largest state in the nation, the governor has chosen to follow the marching orders laid out by a president who clearly has no idea what he’s doing, continuing to endanger the lives of even more Floridians, and stalling any chances for a robust economic recovery,” Gibson said in a written statement.
“But the governor’s singular fixation on this today reflects his inability to get ahead of this pandemic. Everything he has offered is after-the-fact: ventilators, hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, nurse-importation, field hospitals, and now, convalescent plasma, while offering no effective measures on the front end to prevent the spread of the virus in the first place.”
During the governor’s press event, Theri Isaacs explained that she believes she was exposed via a visiting New Yorker in a coffee shop in early March. Soon, the whole family was hospitalized. She and her husband got better and were discharged but her mother was an immunocompromised leukemia patient and kept getting sicker.
Using convalescent plasma was still a new idea — “In fact, we were the first ones to do that
Steve was a compatible donor for his mother in law. His donation went to treat Murray and two additional patients.
“She received the plasma at 7 o’clock in the morning on a Sunday and by Tuesday she was fever free, and by Thursday we were picking her up to come home,” Theri said.
“I was excited to do it and, given the chance to do it again, I will do it as many times as I can,” he said.
Steve noted that, because of the plasma’s yellow hue, medical staff refer to it “golden blood” and Theri agreed. “It’s literally a bag of gold,” she said.
“Steve, you’ve set the gold standard for a son in law. I don’t think you could top that,” Casey DeSantis said.
The state conducts at least 1,000 COVID antibody tests each day and since since Aug. 4 about 20 percent have returned positive results, DeSantis said.
“Clearly, there has been an increase in the seroprevalence in the state of Florida,” he said.
Tests for live virus have produced fewer positive results, he said. Some 650 diagnostic tests done at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami-Dade County produced a 6 percent positive rate, while positive antibody tests came in at more than 20 percent for the past several weeks.
He urged people who think they may have been exposed to the coronavirus to be tested for antibodies.
Dr. Abdallah Kafrouni, who treated the family at Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital near Destin, said the treatment works for some people but that doctors are still researching the process. The plasma is withdrawn after diagnostic tests in COVID patients begin producing negative results, he said. That means antibodies will have formed.
He stressed that the therapy remains experimental, and treatments typically also include remdesivir and a steroid.
“It seems to work earlier rather than later” in the disease’s progression, he said. “It seems that when it does work it works pretty fast. But that’s anecdotal — this still has to be proven.”
DeSantis pointed to what he considers positive trends in the data points he considers most important, especially emergency room visits for COVID-like illnesses, which have declined from 15,999 on July 5 to 5,717 on Aug. 2. Visits for flu-like symptoms have declined from 6,255 to 2,494 during that same period, according to the health department.
“That’s real-time, accurate data of people coming in and either being admitted or not,” Desantis said.
The number of COVID-positive hospital patients has declined by about 30 percent since the third week in July, he added.
The governor again cautioned against over-reliance on raw caseload numbers, pointing to what he considers a data dump this week by a South Florida lab of some 14,000 results collected over seven weeks.
“If you didn’t know that, you would think, ‘Oh, man, Miami-Dade, they have all these new cases.’ Actually, those are old cases. The trend is still positive,” DeSantis said.
He aimed that warning in particular at school board members setting back-to-classroom policies.
“To have, say, a kid’s future about whether a parent should send a child to school be tied to, you know, some private lab that dumps tests seven weeks late, that may not be the best way forward.”
Note: This story has been updated to include comments by Senate Democratic Leader Audrey Gibson.