New Jersey hospitals are implementing experimental treatments almost immediately after they received FDA approval in an effort to find ways to help patients recover from COVID-19.

Virtua Voorhees Hospital said it successfully treated a 61-year-old man and a 63-year-old woman using a convalescent plasma transfusion.

Doctors used the blood plasma of the niece of the woman, Renee Bannister, a teacher from Gloucester County. The niece, Marisa Leuzzi of Downingtown, Pennsylvania, had recovered from COVID-19 and had antibodies in her blood that can help others fight the virus.

Leuzzi also provided the plasma that helped Andy Fei, a professional opera singer from Burlington County who spent 15 days on a ventilator.

The two came off ventilators and were transferred from the intensive care unit to the general medical floor to continue their recovery, according to Dr. Eric Sztejman.

Fei was released from the hospital on April 23 while Bannister was released on April 21.

“We are incredibly excited about these remarkable recoveries. We performed the transfusions just days after the clinical trial was announced, so it is gratifying to be among the first in nation to explore this promising approach to combating the coronavirus,” Sztejman said.

Doctors at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, which is located in hardest-hit Bergen County, injected 15 doses of human placenta into the arms and legs of a 49-year-old man a day after the treatment received FDA approval.

The placenta "changes the reaction of our immune system," said Dr. Ravit Barkama, assistant vice president for Clinical Development at the Institute for Clinical Research at Holy Name. "What we think happens in COVID-19 is that they could potentially quiet down that immune storm, which happens to patients we're seeing 11 to 13 days after they're infected and seven to eight days after the symptoms start."

The man had respiratory failure and his kidneys were not working well, according to Dr. Thomas Birch, infectious disease specialist medical director for the Institute for Clinical Research at Holy Name.

"We had tried every other available therapy to make him better. He is not immediately dying, he is fairly stable on a ventilator and he's even improved somewhat since the medication was given," Birch said. He said it was still early too early to determine how well the patient responded to the treatment.

Barkama said that the FDA has ramped up its approval of possible COVID-19 treatments as "compassionate use," which is requested when a treatment is needed quickly in a specific case. She said most cases get approved for use with that specific case.

"When we need to treat a certain disease or a certain condition but we don't have tools to treat that patient but we do have a thought that drugs that are out there ... might work then we need to submit them for compassionate use, meaning that the FDA approves specifically the patient for a specific treatment," Barkama said.

Birch said Holy Name is conducting a clinical study with 60 patients for Kevzara, a brand name for an antibody against COVID-19 given intravenously that helps with inflammation.

Another study is underway for Remdesivir, an agent originally developed for use against Ebola.

"We're testing what effect it has on critically ill patients in the hospital," Birch said.

Birch said Holy Name is using other medications, which he said are not of proven value yet including the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and Actemra, another antibody used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, which Birch said is having a good effect on getting patients off ventilators.

When COVID-19 patients began coming to Holy Name, Barkama said there was nothing available and doctors began looking at what was effective in Italy and researching other possible treatments.

"We're learning this virus. Always very important to say none of these treatments have proven to be effective. Some have shown a trend in small numbers of patients to be effective but it's definitely not proof that this is the way to go," Barkama said.

Rutgers University has launched the nation's largest prospective study of health care workers exposed to COVID-19. The study includes a series of clinical trials that will explore new drug treatments, antibody testing and long-term health tracking in the hope of providing insight into how to treat the disease and prevent its spread.

One study is in hospitalized patients who are both positive and symptomatic. They will get azithromycin, which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of infections, and hydroxychloroquine, which is approved for the treatment of malaria and autoimmune diseases.

The other study is for asymptomatic positive patients who either get the standard of care of a combo of azithromycin and hydroxychloroquine or hydroxychloroquine alone.

President Donald Trump's praise for hydroxychloroquine has been met with criticism. Hydroxychloroquine can also lead to heart problems, liver and kidney damage, seizures, and result in low blood sugar.

Immunologist Rick Bright, head of a government agency combating the coronavirus pandemic says he was ousted for opposing politically connected efforts to promote hydroxychloroquine and was reassigned to a lesser role. Bright said that science — not politics or cronyism— has to lead the way in the pandemic.

The Health and Human Services Department confirmed in a statement late Wednesday that Bright is no longer at the research agency he headed but didn't comment on his allegations of political interference.

Previous reporting by Jen Ursillo was used in this report. Includes material copyright 2020 by The Associated Press. 

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ

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