FALL RIVER — You can now swap plasma for cash inside what used to be a section of the Ocean State Job Lot store on Rhode Island Avenue.
It’s been just over a month since the Biomat USA plasma donation center opened for business inside Southway Plaza, whose other tenants include a Cardi’s mattress store, Planet Fitness and Mickey Doyle’s sports pub.
The Fall River plasma center is now the third such New England location owned by Grifols S.A. of Barcelona. The other two are in Worcester and Cranston, R.I.
Global demand for plasma — which is used to manufacture life-saving drugs, treat burns and liver failure — was outpacing demand even before the global pandemic, according to Business Insider.
And the non-profit Niskanen Center reports that the United States provides 70 percent of the world’s supply of plasma, with the remaining 20 percent coming from Germany, Austria, Hungary and Czechia.
Employment opportunities at Fall River site
Publio Casillas manages the new Fall River plasma donation center. He said he began the process of hiring and assembling a staff back in September.
Casillas said he now has 38 full-time employees, including his wife, Jamie. He said at least four more job candidates are now being trained, and he anticipates eventually hiring as many as another 20 workers.
Members of his entry level “line staff” earn close to $35,000 a year, which includes medical coverage and a 401(k) plan. Casillas says his medical staff, which includes nurses and paramedics, earn from $21 to $31 an hour depending on experience.
What it’s like to donate plasma
There’s been some criticism through the years that for-profit plasma donation centers exploit poor people who are desperate for cash.
But Briggs Doxzen of Fall River said he’s had no qualms about selling his plasma for the past couple of years and intends to continue doing so.
“It can help you deal with a financial pinch,” said the Virginia transplant and father of two, who now works as a Starbucks shift manager in Somerset.
“It helps provide a little additional income that we can use. And I mean look at gas prices now,” Doxzen said.
Friday marked his first visit to the Fall River location.
Casillas, who before moving to Rhode Island had worked for Grifols in Houston, said repeat donors can earn more than $500 a month.
“That’s a car payment and more,” he said.
Doxzen, who moved to Fall River two years ago, said he had been donating plasma at a facility in East Providence owned by CSL Plasma. But he said he’s switching to Biomat USA in Fall River to save time and money commuting back and forth.
“The staff here is lovely,” said Doxzen, who also noted that he brought his wife to register, which entitles him to referral cash bonus.
He said it usually takes no more than 45 minutes to donate his plasma, and that side effects such as fatigue are minimal.
“It feels similar to giving blood,” Doxzen said. “You do it and then eat a cookie.”
Casillas said first-time donors are paid $150 for each of their first four visits, accessible by means of a America Visa debit card provided by Grifols.
The dollar amount then drops to roughly $35 to $45 per subsequent donation depending on the month, he said. But prices are subject to change, he said.
Eligible donors, who must be between the ages of 18 and 69, are allowed to give plasma twice a week within a seven-day period. Biomat USA in Fall River is open every day except Monday.
A Grifols spokesperson said the company currently has 311 U.S. donation sites.
She also said the company has a long-term lease for its Fall River space that once was part of the Ocean State Job Lot, which since has moved into a new building on William S. Canning Boulevard.
Grifols spent $5 million renovating the empty space and furnishing the site with all the necessary equipment, the spokesperson said.
The importance of U.S. plasma production
According to Fortune Business Insights, two-thirds of all the plasma centers in the country are owned by Grifols, CSL Plasma of Australia and BioLife of Iowa.
It’s important to encourage donors to get into a regular routine, according to the Grifols spokesperson, due to the medical value of plasma and also because “it takes anywhere from 130 to 1,300 donations to produce enough medicine to treat just one patient for one year.”
Business Insider also quoted a 2019 statement issued by the president of the Immune Deficiency Foundation who said: “The bottom line is if the U.S. didn’t compensate donors there would not be enough plasma, and lives would be lost globally.”
How to become a donor
Donor candidates who come into the Fall River location must show two forms of identification, weigh at least 110 pounds, be in good health and provide proof of a residential address.
The Fall River site has five interview stations and one private room for individuals who Casillas says are incapable of reading consent forms and documents.
“We do that to avoid any embarrassment,” he said.
The screening process entails checking blood pressure, pulse, temperature and body weight followed by a physical exam, the latter of which is provided once a year at no charge as long as a person continues to donate.
Donors then lie down on one of more than 50 beds in a large room, which for now is equipped with 15 machines that perform the process of removing plasma from the body known as plasmapheresis.
This involves a single needle that draws one’s blood into a machine, which separates it into plasma and cells before returning the cells back into a donor’s bloodstream.
Casillas said the plasma is then stored in one of two in-house freezers at a temperature between 35 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit below zero before being shipped to large freezer facilities in either California or North Carolina.
He said samples stay in the freezing environment from six months to a year and are tested until they have been determined to be free of any viral markers.
“Our goal is to get a series of quality bottles (of plasma),” he said.
Casillas, who is originally from Texas, said when the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020 it had an immediate effect on the traffic flow at the Houston plasma center where he was working.
“We went from 200 to 300 (donors) a day to maybe 10. People got scared,” he said.
Company donates to local nonprofit
The Grifols spokesperson said the company makes an effort to become “a community partner” in any new city or area where it sets up a plasma donation center.
In the case of Fall River, she said, this took the form of a $25,000 donation to Southeastern Massachusetts SER-Jobs for Progress Inc.
Casillas calls the staff he’s assembled in Fall River “a fantastic team.”
“My goal is to have a positive work environment and have them feel valued,” he said. “They’re my life blood, so I try to take care of them as much as possible.”
Charles Winokoor may be reached at [email protected]. Support local journalism and subscribe to The Herald News today.
This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Cash-for-plasma donation center Biomat USA opens in Fall River