In late March, Kesha Marges, 24, began experiencing textbook coronavirus symptoms: fever and fatigue, followed by tightness in the chest.
“I was in bed for almost two weeks,” says Marges, who suffers from the autoimmune disease lupus and whose 27-year-old brother ended up being hospitalized for a few days.
But a month later, Marges, who lives in Elmhurst, Queens and works stocking shelves at Target, has been putting her coronavirus immunity to work running errands for at-risk friends and family members. “I took it upon myself since I already contracted it,” says Marges, who has also shelled out some $300 to buy groceries, sanitizing products and humidifiers for others.
“I’m not expecting anything in return,” she says.
While COVID-19 has swept the country, killing an estimated 17,000 New Yorkers and counting, many more have managed to recover from the deadly disease. A small army of survivors who have tested positive for antibodies — immune system proteins that defend against viruses — is forming, and may be the key to saving lives.
They’re also eager to help. “A lot of the questions [are]: What do we do now? Is there something we can do?” actor Tom Hanks recently told NPR. He and his wife, Rita Wilson, who both carry coronavirus antibodies, are donating their potentially healing plasma to patients still suffering from the virus; others, like Marges, are running errands, delivering supplies and volunteering to help the needy.
But there is still much unknown about the coronavirus, and experts warn that antibodies are not a perfect firewall against it. Any immunity may be temporary, as the virus continues to mutate, outwitting its human hosts.
“We are reluctant to say that a positive antibody test means you are immune,” Dr. Dwayne Breining, a pathologist at Northwell Health, tells The Post. “When someone has an infection and they have recovered, then generally you will have temporary or seasonal immunity, meaning you are immune from reinfection from the same virus in that same season. So far, that is likely to happen with this one — but we can not say for certain until we do large-scale testing.”
Since the virus can linger on clothing and other items, survivors can still infect others with COVID-19, making it imperative that they continue to take the usual precautions — wearing a mask, social distancing and practicing hand hygiene, says Breining.
Confusion surrounding the “brand-new” testing also remains. While health-care workers, donating their potentially healing plasma can now receive antibody tests, the NYC health department recently warned that the results aren’t always accurate.
Still, New Yorkers with antibodies might be vital to fighting the pandemic in the months to come if they’re able to donate blood plasma. “Blood transfusions have been used to treat infectious disease for well over a century,” says Breining, who notes that the presence of antibodies “seems to stimulate” recipients’ immune systems.
Marges, who has an appointment to donate plasma at a Staten Island center next month, says, “It’s the least that we can do, since we’ve recovered, to give other people the chance to do that as well.”
Appointments in the tristate area to give blood, platelets and plasma have been filling up so quickly, says Lakewood, NJ, resident Eli Steinberg, that he drove to Delaware to donate some of his antibody-rich blood on Monday.
“The Jewish community got hit hard early, so there’s been a campaign to get good antibody tests [available] with the understanding that we’ll donate plasma,” says Steinberg, 36, who is a father of five and a rabbi. He received his test through Bikur Cholim of Lakewood, a Jewish organization that helps residents with medical challenges.
“After I was tested, I got an e-mail that basically said, ‘Mazel tov, you have antibodies,” says Steinberg, who says there’s “peace of mind” knowing he likely won’t catch the coronavirus again anytime soon. As a result, he’s been picking up groceries for neighbors and hoping he’ll be able to volunteer in hospitals to sit bedside with dying patients.
But those who don’t have a confirmed positive COVID-19 test on their chart are having difficulties getting antibody tests, since those can yield false-positives.
“It’s frustrating that I had to jump through hoops and pay just because I want to donate my plasma to someone in need,” says Salvatore Gambino, a former bartender and realtor who lives in Bed-Stuy. Gambino, 32, who started having chest pain and lost his ability to taste back in March, was unable to receive coronavirus testing at the time.
And without any official proof of having had the illness, Gambino says he was denied an antibody test at a Williamsburg urgent-care facility. Eventually, a Downtown Brooklyn clinic administered the test for a price. “I had to pay $175 out of pocket to get my blood drawn and tested,” says Gambino, who’s still waiting to hear if he has the desired level of antibodies.
Michelle Guelbart, 32, has had similar difficulties donating plasma. Although she never received an official coronavirus test, her live-in boyfriend did — and tested positive.
Still, the Greenwood Heights-based Guelbart feels lucky that she has recovered, and recently volunteered to pack food and supplies for families in need through her job at a judicial nonprofit.
“I see people who are hurting more than me and dying,” says Guelbart. “If you’re in a position to help, you absolutely have to.”
— Additional reporting by Melissa Malamut
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