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Ask Matt ... what's going into Rite Aid space

The former Rite Aid pharmacy will be home to Immunotek Bio Centers, a blood plasma business. [MATT MATTESON/Hendersonville Lightning] The former Rite Aid pharmacy will be home to Immunotek Bio Centers, a blood plasma business. [MATT MATTESON/Hendersonville Lightning]

Q. What is going in the former Rite Aid Building on Asheville Highway and Justus Street?


Just in time when hospitals are crying for blood plasma, here comes Immunotek Bio Centers, a Louisiana-based for profit plasma donation center that will move into the former pharmacy. The company, which boasts a dozen locations nationwide, will open next February with 15 employees. The next closest Immunotek center is in Columbia, South Carolina.
Plasma is the greenish yellow stuff that makes up 55 percent of your blood. To get it, a phlebotomy technician “painlessly” draws whole blood from your vein, then the plasma is mechanically separated from the red blood cells and the blood is returned to your body. This process, called plasmapheresis, takes about 90 minutes. A typical draw is 810 ml (1.7 pints). The Immunotek Bio Center in High Point pays donors $75 for the first three sittings and $50 thereafter. They also say you can donate plasma twice every seven days although the Red Cross advises 28 days.
Immunotek officials would not share what they do with the plasma but it is generally known that pharmaceuticals buy plasma because its enzymes, antibodies and proteins are needed for medications. Just up the road in Asheville is another private plasma collection center named Plasma Biological Services. They pay up to $100 for the first two donations. The neat thing about plasma is that it can be frozen and easily stored.
So is there a blood feud? Perhaps so because when Immunotek comes to town there will be competition for donors. One competitor is The Blood Connection, a whole blood and plasma donation center located on Spartanburg Highway. Another is the American Red Cross but it only takes plasma at the center in Asheville. Of the three, only Immunotek pays cash to donors. The other two offer gift cards, T-shirts or snacks.
The story of The Blood Connection is an interesting one. The nonprofit started in the blood business in 1962 in Upstate South Carolina and has grown steadily. Today it runs a $60 million business that supplies blood products to 74 hospitals in the Carolinas. Using 10 donation centers and a fleet of 50 mobile units, the company assisted over 158,000 hospital patients. The Blood Connection is the primary supplier of whole blood for Pardee, AdventHealth (Park Ridge), and Mission hospitals but none of the three was eager to talk about their relationship with blood and plasma suppliers.
The obvious question here is how did The Blood Connection wrestle the blood business away from the American Red Cross? “We were invited into the community by the hospitals to be their blood provider,” said Allie Van Dyke, a Blood Connection spokesperson. “The evolution began locally about six years ago.” I suspect that the new blood and plasma collection agencies got into the business the same way FedEx got into mail delivery – there was a demonstrated need, room to operate and they could do it for less. The Blood Connection takes pride in having a local focus. “Our products are used for hospital transfusions, not sold to pharmacies,” said Van Dyke. “And it is 100 percent patient directed.” All the blood they collect is shipped to a lab in Greenville where it is tested, processed, and distributed to local hospitals. The lab operates 24/7 and the turn-around time is just 24 to 48 hours.
The Red Cross does 40% of the nation’s blood business. And they do some amazing work in disaster recovery, assistance to military families, and training such as CPR and lifeguard, but the trend is down in biomedical services. In just the past five years, the Red Cross has lost 18% of its blood and platelet donations by volume, had 600,000 fewer donors, and dropped 100 hospital and blood transfusion center clients. It should come as no surprise that The Blood Connection was a factor in their loss of market share.
“There’s room for all,” said Megan Robinson, executive director of the WNC Chapter of the American Red Cross. “Last year we collected 24,000 units of blood in the 16 counties we serve.” Robinson said the Red Cross has working relationships with some of the smaller hospitals such as those in Haywood, Rutherford and Swain counties. One niche market held by the Red Cross is filling a need for rare blood types. Robinson said they are now collecting “convalescent plasma” from those who have recovered from Covid-19. This plasma contains antibodies that can help patients who are actively fighting the virus. “There is a shortage of this product,” she said, “and we need all hands on deck.”
Robinson was not overly concerned with the coming of Immunotek or the growth of The Blood Connection. “We try to build a personal relationship with our donors. Many have been with us for years and won’t go elsewhere. They know their blood is going to a trauma victim or cancer patient. In fact, many of our donors use a cell phone app to track their donated blood to see where it ended up.” Blood taken by the Red Cross in WNC is tested and processed in Atlanta before it is redirected.
Some years ago the Red Cross got away from owning real estate and closed the office on Grove Street but tried to maintain the same level of services with blood drives. It still keeps a small office on First Avenue East that was once the County’s E-9-1-1 Center. From that office, Red Cross staff and volunteers handle emergencies such as house fires. When the pandemic hit this spring, the agency opened a temporary four-bed blood donation station.
Let’s recap the local players. The Blood Connection does plasma and other blood products. They are big, growing, but remain a nonprofit. They serve several local hospitals. The American Red Cross still does blood drives locally and plasma donors can give in Asheville. Red Cross collected blood can either serve some local hospitals or go where there is a need. Immunotek Bio Center will open its local center here and pay donors for plasma.
Blood money? In my research for this story it was impossible to avoid reading about the “dark world of plasma” — how some who live in poverty rely on the money they get as plasma donors. Or that plasma is a $20 billion industry that sells the product to pharmaceuticals for many more times what is paid to the donor. It might be of some comfort to know that because of the risk of possible infectious agents in the blood supply, our Food and Drug Administration regulates some aspects of blood collection and inspects centers periodically.