After he fully recovered from the same disease, the physician leading DAP’s COVID-19 Clinic is being blocked from participating in a groundbreaking plasma study that could help save his patients. An outdated FDA regulation left over from the worst days of the AIDS crisis still prevents gay men from donating blood at a time when national supplies are dangerously low, due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
DAP calls on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to end this wasteful and unscientific ban that is based on old fears and outdated testing algorithms. Doing so poses no threat to the nation’s blood supply, but it would help replenish today’s dangerously low reserves across the U.S. and reverse decades old discrimination policy.
Symptoms are different for everyone suffering with the virus. Dr. Christopher Foltz says he did not have the respiratory complaints or typical cold or flu symptoms. He described feeling very “off” with extreme fatigue, and chills but no fever. He got tested, and the symptoms went away. When he got a positive test result the next day, he was already feeling back to normal.
“I consider myself extremely lucky that I had such a mild case of COVID-19, which for many is not the case,” said Dr. Foltz.
Dr. Foltz believes he was exposed after visiting friends who had recently traveled internationally and does not believe he got it through community spread or at the clinic.
“Being a healthcare worker, and with such mild symptoms, I was very fortunate to recover so quickly and only be out of work for 7 days to complete quarantine.”
Patients who have recovered from COVID-19 may have immune-boosting antibodies in their plasma; that plasma—called “COVID-19 convalescent plasma”—could be used to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients. The treatment is not proven but may have some impact in preliminary studies. (Click here to learn more about the LifeStream Convalescent Plasma Program)
“As soon as plasma donation became promising, which was right during my recovery, I knew I wanted to donate,” said Dr. Foltz. “And the fact I was an infectious diseases doctor on the frontlines just made it all the more perfect.”
Dr. Foltz’s Kansas City, (KS) roots and his background in microbiology, infectious diseases, and community health had led him to the Coachella Valley to serve a community that desperately needs him. He conceived of the COVID-19 Triage Clinic and launched it successfully, and also managed the validation testing for antibody tests. Plasma donorship would have rounded out his contribution to this pandemic’s demise nicely, but he was stopped.
“I applied for plasma donation only to find out that I was rejected because of the FDA regulations stating men who sleep with men can essentially not be donors for 12 months,” he said.
Despite all he had done to help his community, Dr. Foltz was being told the same old lie that LGBTQ people have been told everywhere: You are not enough. He knew better.
“Here I had the opportunity to potentially save a life and I was made to feel like something was intrinsically wrong with my blood,” said Dr. Christopher Foltz. “The other option was to lie about my medical and personal history, but the ethical physician in me just couldn’t do that.”
Current safety protocol throughout the United States for donated blood already requires stringent testing to ensure HIV and other infectious diseases do not make it into the supply, rendering the current ban utterly unnecessary.
“I cannot believe we are here in this day and age,” said Dr. Shubha Kerkar. An Infectious Diseases specialist, she has been on the frontlines in the Coachella Valley for decades treating patients with HIV and AIDS, hepatitis C, and cancer. She keeps rounds at several local hospitals and offers specialized care at DAP with skilled management of her patients’ conditions.
Given that there is no scientific or even anecdotal justification to continue a ban on donating blood for men who have sex with men, according to Dr. Kerkar, only one explanation is left: homophobic discrimination.
“We have to call it what it is,” she said. “Why beat around the bush?”
Dr. Kerkar remembers from experience what it is like to watch the demise of her patients due to AIDS, speeded along by archaic and homophobic policies and attitudes that stalled meaningful advancements for treatments, and blocked access to medical care itself for people suffering most.
Until recently, there was a lifetime ban on donating blood if you were a man who had ever had sex with another man (yes, once in college counted). During the Obama Administration, the FDA modified it to a 12-month required abstinence, before lowering it again to a three-month abstinence period to donate blood recently.
Lowering the waiting period to three months might seem like progress, but it merely reinforces the homophobic dog whistle—any amount of gay sex, even between two long-term married men, creates a public health threat.
“As a humanitarian organization, DAP views this ban as a human rights violation,” said David Brinkman, DAP CEO. “No one should be denied from contributing to the wellbeing of their community in a time of crisis, including gay men.”
Those suffering from COVID-19 whose lives could be saved from convalescent plasma transfusion must be given every chance to access this therapy. The United States is suffering from a dangerous shortage of whole blood, necessary to make plasma.
Lifting this ban quite frankly will save lives.