New York's Orthodox Jews make up half of US volunteers donating plasma to treat coronavirus patients

Doctors, who had earlier conducted a pilot study, found evidence that seriously ill coronavirus patients can benefit from blood plasma collected from people who have recovered from the disease


                            New York's Orthodox Jews make up half of US volunteers donating plasma to treat coronavirus patients
(Getty Images)

New York Orthodox Jews likely make up half of all US plasma donors, who are donating their blood in the hope that it can be used to treat other people struck down by Covid-19, according to a report.

Doctors, who had earlier conducted a pilot study, found evidence that seriously ill coronavirus patients can benefit from blood plasma collected from people who have recovered from the disease. 

Known as convalescent plasma therapy, the treatment has been around for over 100 years and was used during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. It uses donated blood plasma from patients who have recovered from the infection. The reason: plasma from someone who has recovered from Covid-19 contains antibodies made by the immune system and used to kill the virus. This antibody-rich plasma is transfused into someone infected with the virus in the hopes that antibodies from the recovered person can help the person who is sick by killing the virus the next time it attacks, say medical experts. 

Many Americans who have recovered from coronavirus have donated their blood to plasma clinics. And Orthodox Jews, who have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, make up a significant proportion of the volunteers. “Thousands of recovered Covid-19 patients nationwide have donated blood plasma in recent weeks. By far, the largest group is our Orthodox friends in New York City. I would be shocked if they were less than half the total,” Dr Michael Joyner, who is leading a study at the Mayo Clinic in the use of plasma to treat patients with severe Covid-19, told the New York Times. Dr Joyner adds that more than 5,000 patients across the country had received plasma treatment so far. 

According to the report, public health data suggests the Orthodox and Hasidic community may have been affected at a rate that exceeds other ethnic and religious groups, with community estimates placing the number of dead in the hundreds, including beloved religious leaders. 

Plasma from someone who has recovered from Covid-19 contains antibodies made by the immune system and used to kill the virus. This antibody-rich plasma is transfused into someone infected with the virus in the hopes that antibodies from the recovered person can help the person who is sick by killing the virus the next time it attacks. (Getty Images)

Multiple factors are responsible for the large number of Orthodox Jew members donating their blood. This includes “the close ties that bind Orthodox society, a religious commitment to the value of human life and a network of organizers committed to turning something bad into something good.”

“I think the Jewish people are a little bit like a rubber band. You know, the more you pull them down, the more they’re going to snap back up,” Mordy Serle, an Orthodox Jew who made the trip from Brooklyn last month to donate blood, told NYT. He added, “There were probably never so many Hasidim in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the history of the world, and here they’re riding in literally to save lives.”

The New York Blood Center, one of New York’s largest blood banks, is collaborating with the national Orthodox Jewish umbrella group -- Agudath Israel of America -- and a network of volunteers to bring blood plasma to patients suffering from the coronavirus, according to an announcement on the website of Agudath Israel. 

“The Jewish ethos places supreme value on life. We knew we could uniquely mobilize our constituents to help for something like this, but the response has exceeded our expectations. Within hours of our plasma solicitation – just before Passover no less – we had hundreds of calls to donate,” said Avrohom Weinstock, Agudath Israel’s Chief of Staff. 

Serle, an Orthodox Jewish attorney from Brooklyn, said that he dropped everything to help coordinate the effort. “This became personal for me when my father-in-law became seriously ill with coronavirus. After he recovered, my only thought was, ‘What can I do to help others,’” he said.

The New York Blood Center is collaborating with the national Orthodox Jewish umbrella group Agudath Israel of America to bring blood plasma to patients suffering from the coronavirus (Getty Images)

The efforts of the community has led to the Covid Plasma Initiative Foundation. “In early April 2020, Abba Swiatycki and Mordechai Serle fatefully crossed paths. They were each searching for treatments for acutely ill family members who were fighting for their lives in intensive care units. They were told, independently, that convalescent Covid-19 plasma transfusions could help their relatives in theory, but that the plasma simply wasn't available in their hospitals,” said a blog on the initiative. It added, “Mordechai and Abba initiated a campaign to recruit plasma donors, teaming up with Chaim Lebovits, a longtime volunteer patient advocate who had already been independently recruiting donors for a different hospital. Their collective efforts quickly grew into what is now the Covid Plasma Initiative Foundation.”

Danny Riemer and his wife Sheera from New Rochelle, New York, were among the first volunteers to donate blood plasma in early April. “This was a way to turn our personal bouts with coronavirus into something positive that can help others,” said the Orthodox Jewish couple.

According to NYT, Agudath Israel publicized the effort at synagogues across the New York region and included information about it in its newsletter, which has “tens of thousands of subscribers.” The efforts have led to more than 12,000 plasma donors to sign up since April 4. Serle says that organizers expect that number to grow to 30,000.

Chaim Lebovits sells shoes in Spring Valley, New York, but his previous experience of coordinating with Dr Shmuel Shoham, associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine, has been very useful in the effort spearheaded by Agudath Israel. “The amazing thing is that none of us had met before a couple of weeks ago, and now we are on the phone nonstop. We just kind of all had a common goal we were hyper-focused on, and coalesced around the project,” said Chaim. 

Agudath Israel and its volunteers are also working to help bring on board hospitals in the New York area and throughout the country to administer plasma to coronavirus patients.

“This is what we were created for. It has been heartwarming to see Agudath Israel and the Jewish community step up in such a tangible way to get as much plasma as possible to the patients who need it,” said Dr Beth H Shaz, New York Blood Bank’s chief medical and scientific officer.”

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