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Valley residents with antibodies to COVID-19 have the potential to save lives of seriously-ill hospital patients, says DHR Health’s Sohail Rao, MD - Titans of the Texas Legislature

Featured: Matías Ríos, 51, battled a life-threatening COVID-19 infection while admitted in the Serious Infectious Disease Unit (SIDU) at DHR Health in May 2020. Upon arrival to DHR Health, he presented with bilateral pneumonia and tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. After being placed on a ventilator for two weeks with minimal improvement, consent was obtained from his authorized guardian, allowing Ríos to receive a transfusion of Convalescent Plasma. One day after the transfusion Ríos’ condition started to improve and he was removed from his ventilator. Ríos is now on the road to full recovery.

Photograph Courtesy DHR HEALTH

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Valley residents with antibodies to COVID-19 have the potential to save lives of seriously-ill hospital patients, says DHR Health’s Sohail Rao, MD

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
[email protected]

Rio Grande Valley residents who have developed antibodies to COVID-19 have the potential to save lives of seriously-ill hospital patients who are suffering from that infectious and dangerous disease, according to Sohail Rao, MD, MA, DPHIL, President and CEO for DHR Health Institute for Research and Development. 

When the COVID pandemic hit the nation (in March 2020), we started a process of creating some therapeutic options for our patients and our physicians,” said Rao. “At that time, and still, the only therapeutic tool that is available to treat COVID-19 infection is transfusing (convalescent) plasma to these patients.”

Plasma is the liquid portion of the blood.

Convalescent plasma (kon-vuh-LES-unt PLAZ-muh) therapy is an experimental treatment that some doctors are using for people with severe coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). No drug has been proved to be safe and effective for treating COVID-19. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved any drugs specifically to treat people with COVID-19.

As the pandemic has begun to affect more individuals in deep South Texas, Rao continues his public call for qualified volunteers, through their donation of convalescent plasma containing antibodies to COVID-19, to become heroes in the battle against the virus.

“You have your community members, your friends, your family who are in ICU (Intensive Care Unit), and who are struggling to recover. They need help. The only help we can provide to them in terms of therapy is convalescent plasma,” said Rao. “They need some passive boosting of their immune system. If that is not enough of a motivation for you to donate after you have recovered, and God has been so kind to you, then I don’t know what additional motivation I can provide.”

People who recover from COVID-19 do so, at least in part, because their blood contains substances called antibodies, which are capable of fighting the virus that causes the illness. It turns out that for some other diseases caused by viruses, giving people the liquid portion of blood (plasma), obtained from those who have recovered from the virus, leads to more rapid improvement of the disease. Patients with COVID-19 may improve faster if they receive plasma from those who have recovered from COVID-19, because it may have the ability to fight the virus that causes COVID-19. 

https://www.mayoclinic.org/coronavirus-covid-19

As of late June 2020, DHR Health and other major hospital systems in the Rio Grande Valley had treated more than 80 patients using convalescent plasma therapy, and “have seen a very positive outcome of this particular intervention in patients with COVID-19 disease,” Rao said. 

He urges potential donors to call him directly at 504/444-2318 or DHR Health at 956/215-3166 for more information.

Raoexplained how DHR Health determines who can be a donor.

“Once the individual decides they would like to be a donor, we bring them into DHR, into our research institute, and we do very thorough screening,” he said. “At that time, we also obtain a little bit of blood, send it to our own laboratory to actually do an assessment of antibodies. The test comes back in a matter of a couple of hours. The only thing we can see is whether they have the antibodies or they don’t.”

To learn if an individual qualifies as a donor, visit https://b.link/DHRHIRD_COVID19, or email [email protected] to request more information. 

A donor who is qualified to donate convalescent plasma also will be paid $75 (seventy-five dollars) by DHR Health.

“We are available 24/7. In the last three days, I have only slept for about six hours. I am both collecting plasma and at the same time arranging plasma for our patients,” Rao said, and emphasized, “I am available to the community. Please give me a call. I beg you.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC): 

• COVID-19 can affect anyone, and the disease can cause symptoms ranging from mild to very severe, and even death;
• Everyone is at risk for getting COVID-19 if they are exposed to the virus; and
• Some people are more likely than others to become severely ill, which means that they may require hospitalization, intensive care, or a ventilator to help them breathe, or they may even die.

HIDALGO COUNTY SETS RECORD HIGH DAILY NUMBER OF CONFIRMED COVID-19 CASES ON TUESDAY, JUNE 30, 2020, WITH 440 CASES AND 11 DEATHS

On Tuesday evening, June 30, 2020, Hidalgo County, with its estimated 860,000 residents, reported the highest number of daily confirmed cases of COVID-19: 440, including 11 deaths on that day from the illness.

Other key data for Hidalgo County include:

• 3,982 positive COVID-19 cases, including 46 fatalities, as of Tuesday, June 30, 2020;
• 2,786 net active cases and 3,577 test results were pending as of Tuesday, June 30, 2020;
• 274 people hospitalized with complications from the virus; 19 of those cases were being treated in intensive care units, as of Tuesday, June 39, 2020; and
• Fifty-five people were released from isolation on Tuesday, June 30, 2020, meaning they had been symptom-free for 10 days, including three days without a fever. 

The previous day – Monday, June 29, 2020, Hidalgo County ranked seventh among the 10 most populated counties in Texas with confirmed COVID-19 cases:

• Harris County – 30,729 cases, 376 deaths;
• Dallas County – 20,737 cases, 353 deaths;
• Tarrant County – 11, 739 cases, 225 deaths
• Bexar County – 10,809 cases, 1o9 deaths
• Travis County – 8,969 cases, 121 deaths;
• Ft. Bend County – 3,772 cases, 53 deaths.
• Hidalgo County – 3,519 cases, 35 deaths;
• Colin County – 2,882 cases, 42 deaths;
• Denton County – 2,740 cases, 37 deaths;
• El Paso County – 2,360 cases, 119 deaths; and
• Nueces County – 2,120 cases, 8 deaths.

Also as of a Monday, June 29, 2020, the remaining counties in the Rio Grande Valley have reported the following information:

• Cameron County – 2,183 cases, 55 deaths;
• Starr County – 551 cases, 3 deaths; and
• Willacy County – 151 cases, 3 deaths.

DHR Health Institute for Research & Development was established as a nonprofit 501(c)3 entity organized under the Texas Nonprofit Corporation Act. The primary objective of DHR Health Institute for Research & Development is to serve as an independent research institute with a focus on enhancing translational and clinical research in critical areas of need through collaboration with investigators at DHR Health and other affiliated academic and non-academic partners.

As part of its mission, DHR Health Institute for Research & Development is also committed to providing access to innovative and advanced clinical care models for physicians for the treatment of patients and to facilitate the development of “personalized” clinical care models for the Hispanic population in the Valley. It is envisioned that this will also minimize the disruption in the personal lives of our patients who have to travel to another center to gain access to a clinical trial, which could be offered here in the Valley.

“We formed this particular institute at DHR in March of last year (2019). The leadership at DHR wanted to create a not-for-profit institute to bring innovative and advanced clinical trials to the region. When I started to develop this particular concept with the leadership at DHR, we had about 11 clinical trials going on at DHR,” Rao said. “At the present time, we have more than 91 clinical trials at DHR. We are – and I am very proud to say this – the largest clinical trial institution south of San Antonio. There is no one which has this capacity. We have more than 23 people, we have coordinators, we have a clinical trial unit. You can go to our website – DHRResearch.org – and you can see what this institute is all about.”

According to his official biography, Rao recently served as the Senior Adviser to the President, McNeese State University. In this role, he advised the president and his senior leadership team in areas of strategy, innovation, global outreach, and transforming the delivery of education and training in disciplines related to health sciences. 

He also served as the Chief Executive Officer, Louisiana Healthcare Education Alliance (LHCA), a not-for-profit state entity, which was established to enhance collaboration in the areas of clinical, undergraduate and graduate education in medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and allied health sciences, research, and community outreach.

Rao obtained his MD from Dow Medical College; his MA in Physiology from Boston University, School of Medicine, and Doctorate in Philosophy (DPhil) from the Wolfson College, University of Oxford, UK.

Anchored in southwest Edinburg, with a growing presence in neighboring McAllen, DHR Health offers some of the most comprehensive medical care on the U.S. southern border, with more than 1,400 nurses and 600+ physicians providing care in 70+ specialties and sub-specialties.

DHR Health is the flagship teaching hospital for the UTRGV School of Medicine and encompasses a general acute hospital with the only dedicated women’s hospital South of San Antonio, a rehabilitation hospital, a behavioral hospital, more than 70 clinics Valley-wide, advanced cancer services, the only transplant program in the Rio Grande Valley – and the only functioning 24/7 Level 1 Trauma Center south of San Antonio.

DHR Health is headquartered on a 130-acre site, with most of the facilities in southwest Edinburg but with a growing South Campus immediately across Owassa Road in northwest McAllen.

DHR HEALTH PATIENT MATÍAS RÍOS, 51, RECOVERS FROM COVID-19 AFTER RECEIVING CONVALESCENT PLASMA TRANSFUSION

On Friday, June 5, 2020, DHR Health reported on one of its patients who was recovering from COVID-19 after receiving a convalescent plasma transfusion. 

The article follows:

For more than a month, DHR Health patient, Matías Ríos, 51, battled a life-threatening COVID-19 infection while admitted in the Serious Infectious Disease Unit (SIDU). Upon arrival to DHR Health, he presented with bilateral pneumonia and tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. After being placed on a ventilator for two weeks with minimal improvement, consent was obtained from his authorized guardian, allowing Ríos to receive a transfusion of convalescent plasma.

DHR Health Institute for Research and Development has created the Rio Grande Valley’s first Convalescent Plasma program to treat patients with severe and life-threatening SARS-CoV-2 infection. Ríos is one of many patients in the Rio Grande Valley whose transfusion was facilitated by this program.

One day after the transfusion Ríos’ condition started to improve and he was removed from his ventilator. Ríos is now on the road to full recovery, thanks to the extraordinary team of physicians and nurses who played a vital role in his recovery at the Serious Infectious Disease Unit (SIDU), which is located offsite on DHR Health campus to isolate and treat COVID-19 patients.

Convalescent Plasma Program at DHR Health Institute for Research and Development has provided a very important option in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. 

The demand for plasma remains high as patients in the Rio Grande Valley continue to experience life-threatening COVID-19. In order to fulfill the gradually increasing demand for convalescent plasma, DHR Health Institute for Research and Development is seeking individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 and who are willing to donate blood and/or plasma for the benefit of the community.

Ríos credits his faith, his will to live and his family who motivated and supported him even though they were not able to be by his side. “Esta experiencia nos marca,” says  Ríos. “Pero tengo un agradecimiento muy grande con el hospital. Tengo recuerdos muy bonitos.”

“This experience left its mark on me,” says Ríos. “But I have a lot of gratitude towards the hospital. I have a lot of beautiful memories [from my time in the hospital].”

Ríos has been discharged from the SIDU and is currently home, continuing to recover while being cared for by his wife, with whom he has been with for more than 35 years. He is now walking without assistance and is completing a set of daily exercises recommended by his physicians. His advice to any other person or family who’s loved one is fighting COVID-19 is “never give up and trust in God.”

GOV. ABBOTT ISSUES PROCLAMATION TO EXPAND HOSPITAL CAPACITY IN HIDALGO, CAMERON, NUECES AND WEBB COUNTIES

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday, June 30, 2020, issued a proclamation suspending elective surgeries at hospitals in Cameron, Hidalgo, Nueces, and Webb counties to help ensure hospital bed availability for COVID-19 patients in these communities. 

This proclamation amends the governor’s previous Executive Order to include these four counties in addition to Bexar, Dallas, Harris, and Travis counties.

“As these counties experience a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, we are committed to working alongside hospitals to help ensure that every COVID-19 patient who needs a bed will have access to one,” said Abbott. “We are constantly monitoring the data at the local level and will continue to take precautionary action where it is necessary. I want to remind all Texans that each of us has a responsibility to help slow the spread of this virus, and I urge everyone to wear a mask, wash their hands regularly, practice social distancing, and stay home if possible.”

Under the Executive Order, the governor directs all hospitals in these counties to postpone surgeries and procedures that are not immediately, medically necessary to correct a serious medical condition or to preserve the life of a patient who without an immediate performance of the surgery or procedure would be at risk for serious adverse medical consequences or death, as determined by the patient’s physician. 

Through the proclamation, the governor can add or subtract from the list of counties included in the Executive Order to address surges in hospitalizations that may arise in other parts of the state.

View the Governor’s Proclamation 

DR. IVÁN MELÉNDEZ, THE HIDALGO COUNTY HEALTH AUTHORITY, AND HIDALGO COUNTY CLERK ARTURO GUAJARDO, JR., TEST POSITIVE FOR COVID-19

Dr. Iván Meléndez, theHidalgo County Health Authority, and Hidalgo County Clerk Arturo Guajardo, Jr., on Monday, June 29, 2020, both announced that they had tested positive for COVID-19.

Meléndez, who is the county’s chief medical advisor, learned of his test results Monday morning after being called away from a press conference involving Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortéz, Hidalgo Precinct 4 Commissioner Ellie Torres, and several area hospital administrators.

Meléndez joined the press conference late and left early and had minimal exposure to people in the room, particularly the media, which was stationed at the other end of the room. In addition, he and everyone in the room wore facial coverings further mitigating the possibility of exposure. All people entering the press conference were also screened by an official with the Hidalgo County Health and Human Services Department who checked everyone’s temperature.

Meléndez is a clinician meaning that he had continued to see patients as the pandemic hit Hidalgo County. Among his daily rounds was interaction with patients who had also tested positive for COVID-19. He immediately self-isolated and is generally asymptomatic having expressed slight fatigue. He said he will continue to see patients via videoconferencing.

“Dr. Meléndez has come to be an insightful and trusted advisor during this pandemic,” Cortéz said Tuesday, June 30, 2020. “I am praying for his quick recovery.”

For his part, Guajardo has been recovering at home.

Guajardo, who has served as the Hidalgo County Clerk since 2007, took time off two weeks ago. During the course of his days off, he came in contact with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19 and decided to self-isolate.

While self-isolating, the 51-year-old, with no underlying conditions developed the symptoms and subsequently received confirmation that he has COVID-19.

Chief Deputy County Clerk Annette Muñiz praised Guajardo for being proactive in self-isolating.

“Mr. Guajardo’s decisive action protected not only his staff and colleagues but others in the community,” Muñiz said. “Rather than come into the office, he telecommuted and has called in every day during his self-isolation, in spite of his illness.”

Guajardo said he wants to serve as a cautionary tale that anyone can get this disease.

“Please, for your own sake and the sake of your loved ones, continue to practice social distancing, wear a mask when out in public and only go out when you absolutely have to,” Guajardo said. “Even though I am healthy, active, and strong and took all precautions, I was not immune to it.”

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Evana Vleck contributed to this article. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

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