Skip to Main Content

Collaborating Across Systems

Strong collaboration across universities, health systems and the federal government is speeding the national Expanded Access Program to collect and provide convalescent plasma to seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

William Hartman, MD ’03, PhD ’99, is the principal investigator for the University of Wisconsin COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, part of a national grassroots effort in collaboration with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to study in real time the efficacy of COVID-19 survivor plasma as a treatment for the disease. He has been the subject of numerous televised and print media interviews since March.

Q: You experienced an unexpected uplift in your plasma collection effort. How?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma on Aug. 23, citing the treatment's "known and potential benefits" in treating COVID-19.

A: As different as people are in this world and as polarized as our population has become, I have seen a coming together of people in a way that has been pretty special. When we needed plasma donors, we appealed to the goodness in people. We couldn’t offer money. We had no money. We couldn’t promise them anything. We just had to ask them, “You have this super power in your body. Will you share it? Will you spend two hours of your time donating plasma to strangers?” The response was always the same. It didn’t matter who was on the receiving end, they just wanted to help. It’s been the same thing with setting up this program. People have been working from home; some not working much. They all just wanted to help. We have the know-how. We will figure out how to make this program work. And it’s the selfless nature of people in donating their time and plasma that has really made this work. There’s a pay-it-forward phenomenon. We have helped neighbor hospitals in Wisconsin and hospitals in Chicago get set up to participate. None of our collaborators are asking for any sort of reimbursement or payment for their efforts. What they’re doing makes a difference, and it’s helping people who are sick. It’s the community that’s saving the community. It’s the people around you, your neighbors, who are supplying what’s needed. And they’re doing so out of the goodness of their hearts. I’m just the middle man.

Q: What’s the news on UW’s study and others on convalescent plasma?

A: Our results so far show that we helped 94% of patients with severe disease stay out of the ICU and off ventilators. I believe in this therapy. We were one of the first hospitals to join the consortium back in March, and the effort has definitely caught fire. Using tools from Mayo and Johns Hopkins, our team of experts worked around the clock to bring a treatment we thought would be effective. We were able to get things going in two weeks — logistics that would normally take eight to 12 months to put in place. At the time, there were not a lot of good options to treat people. We were just trying to put tools into the toolboxes of physicians. The data is showing that the treatment is both safe and effective. A study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings of 20,000 diverse patients hospitalized with severe cases of COVID-19 revealed less than 1% experienced negative effects seven days after transfusion.

Q: How are you prioritizing communication?

A: I talk to colleagues by email, text and in person several times a day to make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of inpatient treatment and to make sure our convalescent plasma supply can keep up with demand. We make sure our physicians, including hospitalists and critical care doctors in the ICU, know we can intervene early and do what we can to keep patients off ventilators. I get phone calls or paged first thing every morning to discuss patients, speak with their families, get consent and begin treatment. In addition to expertise in transfusing patients, anesthesiologists are deep collaborators. On any given day, we have to go between several different specialists, pulmonologists, cardiologists and whatever surgical service they’re on. We spend a lot of time coordinating care and making sure every patient gets the care they need.

Q: What was your experience at the Chicago Medical School?

A: I grew up in Lake Forest, IL, and attended Lake Forest College, where I did a summer internship at CMS and also my senior thesis project. I was accepted into the university’s PhD program, where I worked in the department of pharmacology and molecular biology on an anti-leukemia drug. I started with the idea of becoming a researcher and developed a true love for medicine. I am grateful to CMS for so many things, but the best thing was meeting my wife, Ann Bordignon Hartman, MS ’98, PA-C, a graduate of the physician assistant program. We have five kids. I am also grateful to UW, where the leadership has been so supportive and has put me in contact with some of the best people around to get our plasma initiative up and running. We all saw the promise and hope of this program.