New York’s Angel of Life

May 1, 2020

Author: Emily Elliott

Chaim Lebovits donating plasma at Mount Sina

In the Greater New York City area, over 11,000 people who have recovered from COVID-19 have donated their blood plasma to help aid the recovery of those currently suffering from the disease. It is no small undertaking. Health care systems have had to adapt quickly and develop plans to accommodate a surge in both COVID-19 patients and donors eager to help.

Chaim Lebovits, a resident of the Greater New York City area, has been the man behind the scenes, rallying the Orthodox Jewish community to donate their convalescent plasma and working with local hospitals and blood donation centers to facilitate this massive undertaking. Lebovits spoke with the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, telling us about his involvement and providing advice for others who want to organize their communities.

How did you find out about the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project? How did you get involved in facilitating donations?

Lebovits laughed when we posed his question, saying “It is the complete opposite of the what you would think. I was just asked.” Dr. Shmuel Shoham of Johns Hopkins and a member of the leadership group of the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project enlisted Lebovits to find donors who might be interested in donating their convalescent plasma.

Lebovits knew Shoham from his volunteer work advocating for patients with complex medical issues. Lebovits helps these patients receive consultations from leading specialists and gain admittance to premier hospitals like Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic.

How did he get involved in helping patients? He is not sure. Lebovits shared that he just seemed to have a knack for it, and it grew out of his work helping people in his community who were hospitalized. He translated complex medical jargon into laymen’s terms.

When asked why Shoham would reach out to him in particular, Lebovits joked, saying “He knew I would get it done. I had a religious education. I never learned words like ‘no’ or ‘I can’t do that.’” Lebovits explained that he is an observant Jew and views serving his community and saving lives as a moral obligation.

How did you begin to organize people? Where did you begin?

Shoham of Johns Hopkins put Lebovits in contact with Dr. Liise-anne Pirofski, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and member National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project leadership group to facilitate sending prospective donors to the college’s affiliated hospital, Montefiore Medical Center, for plasma donations.

Lebovits used his networks to find donors and encourage them to act. He reached out to as many local rabbis as possible, who then sent out emails to their communities. In these emails, the rabbis encouraged those recovering from COVID-19 to get tested for antibodies, explaining that donations would save lives.

Lebovits estimates that this push resulted in 11,000 donations over the past month.

Lebovits quickly realized that Montefiore alone could not accommodate all the donors. Lebovits believed it was best for to get as many donors to give their convalescent plasma as soon as possible. This was mid-March when New York City and its surrounding areas were being pummeled by COVID-19. Thousands of patients were in need of a cure.

Lebovits reached out to numerous organizations and medical groups to ask them to assist with plasma donations. Dr. David Reich, the president and chief operating officer of Mount Sinai, “was unbelievably supportive” according to Lebovits.

Refuah Health (Refuah means healing in Hebrew) of Rockland county, one of New York City’s northern suburbs, also provided incalculable support. One of Refuah Health’s administrators is a neighbor of Lebovits and has benefited from convalescent plasma. Refuah opened its facilities to donors and provided nurses to assist in collecting the donations, which were then sent to Mount Sinai.

Refuah also put its mobile collection units to work. These units limit contact among individuals when compared to visiting a hospital or office that might have dozens of people present. Refuah’s mobile units traveled across Rockland and Orange counties in New York’s northern suburbs, Brooklyn, and Long Island.

New York Blood Center (NYBC) initially accommodated only 40 convalescent plasma donations a day. Each donor usually provides 2.5 units, resulting in a daily total of 200 units a day at a time when nearly 2,000 people were being hospitalized every day.

Lebovits and NYBC worked to identify the bottlenecks and how to streamline the process. Now, NYBC accommodates 350 donors daily, increasing its capacity nearly nine-fold.

What has recovery looked like for patients who have received convalescent plasma?

Lebovits stated that he is not a physician and was reluctant to speak on the issue. He cautioned that his comments are based on a layman’s understanding of anecdotal evidence.

Lebovits stated the convalescent plasma is most effective when used early in the course of the disease, but he has heard reports of intubated patients—even some with multi-organ failure—recovering after receiving the plasma.

For more mild cases or cases treated early, he has heard that some patients are often able to avoid intubation and are discharged from the hospital in two to three days

How much of your day do you devote to this? What keeps you motivated?

Lebovits estimated that from mid-March to mid-April, he spent 16 to 18 hours a day working to find donors and increase donation capacity. How did he have the time? He runs a business that is non-essential and therefore was spending more time at home.

But, it also required sacrifice. Family-time and sleep were nearly non-existent, and Lebovits left his phone on during the Sabbath, something he never does. Things have slowed a bit in the past week he reported.

How did he keep going? He felt pushed to the max when it came to saving lives. “I have an obligation to save lives,” he told us.

What advice would you give to others who want to organize their communities to donate convalescent plasma?

Decentralize, decentralize, decentralize. You cannot try to do it all with such a largescale project.

“Time is not on our side. Decentralizing is the only way to move quickly,” Lebovits said.

Lebovits recommends reaching out to health care providers since they have better information on who has been infected. These providers can send emails to recovering patients, alerting them to the possibility of donating their convalescent plasma. Emails to would-be donors should also include information on where recovering patients can be tested for antibodies and donate their plasma.

Unexpected roadblocks and challenges will arise. Collection capacity was an initial problem since most donation centers were not equipped to cope with a pandemic. Lebovits had to be flexible with their various protocols. He also spent significant time on conference calls with the primary investigators of the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project and area hospitals?

The good news? The New York City area is now the only spot in the nation that can accommodate the number of donors it needs. Lebovits believes other area will soon follow suit. “When given the opportunity to save a life, most will try to do this,” Lebovits said.

How is his work expanding in the future?

New York Blood Center also oversees blood donations in Delaware. Initially, donors from New York were traveling to Delaware to give their plasma, which then helped patients in Baltimore and New York City. The American Red Cross and other organizations are beginning to take convalescent plasma in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Despite initial bottlenecks, NYBC can fulfill hospitals’ orders for convalescent plasma almost instantaneously, delivering the same day or the next morning.

At this point, New York City hospitals seem to be well-covered, and convalescent plasma will now be shipped to Pennsylvania and other parts of the country that express need.

But, Lebovits keeps on going, petitioning more hospitals to use transfusions to save lives and reaching out to other Orthodox Jewish communities across the United States.

His next project includes trying to organize outpatient transfusions sites. Going to the hospital is intimidating since safety protocols prohibit visitors. No one wants to be alone, so patients push off going to the hospital.

Patients recover better and faster when they are treated earlier, and outpatient services would be beneficial for those with underlying conditions, such as cancer, who want limited contact with others due to their weakened immune systems.

Lebovits hopes physicians could write a referral for patients to go to a center and receive a transfusion. They would remain for a few hours to make sure they have no adverse effects and then recover at home.