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First one infected at Hurlburt Field, Col. Dickens, rolls up sleeve for COVID-19 fight

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

HURLBURT FIELD — Air Force Col. Richard Dickens literally rolled up his sleeves — well, one of them anyway — this week for the ongoing fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Dickens, commander of the 505th Command and Control Wing at Hurlburt Field, took time Thursday to donate blood during a OneBlood donation drive at the base.

But Dickens' donation wasn't a typical one. Because he had his own bout with COVID-19 earlier this year, his blood contains antibodies that can boost the ability of people hospitalized with COVID-19 to fight off the disease.

More:Hurlburt colonel shares coronavirus story

Once donated, his blood was to be broken down so that its plasma — dubbed "convalescent plasma" due to its coronavirus antibodies — could be made available to people who might need it. Donating plasma is a somewhat more lengthy process than just donating blood, and can take anywhere from 35 minutes to an hour.

Col. Richard Dickens, who several months ago became the first person at Hurlburt Field to contract COVID-19, donates convalescent plasma during a blood drive Thursday. Convalescent plasma contains COVID-19 antibodies, which can reduce the severity of the illness in people who are treated with it.

But Dickens said as his plasma was being collected, the experience "doesn't feel any different at all" from a regular blood donation.

He added that he hopes his donation will make some else's experience with COVID-19 a little better than it might be otherwise.

"When you have the virus, you want the best possible treatment, the best possible care," Dickens said as a OneBlood phlebotomist put a needle in his left arm and his blood —with its potentially lifesaving plasma — began flowing into a section of medical tubing.

Col. Richard Dickens, who several months ago became the first person on Hurlburt Field to contract COVID-19, donates convalescent plasma during a blood drive Thursday Hurlburt Field. Convalescent plasma contains COVID-19 antibodies, which can reduce the severity of the illness in people who are treated with it.

Dickens contracted the virus in the early spring. He believes he got it as the result of a duty-related trip to England.

Once back home, he went into quarantine because he had traveled internationally. Soon after, he was dealing with fatigue, a dry cough, difficulty in breathing and, as the illness progressed, a low-grade fever.

"I felt that pure exhaustion," Dickens remembered Thursday.

Once he got the fever he contacted medical personnel at Hurlburt Field. He was the first person to use the installation’s drive-thru COVID-19 testing service, and as things turned out, the first person at the installation to test positive for the coronavirus.

Luckily, Dickens’ illness was abated by nothing more than regular use of acetaminophen to combat the fever and other aches and pains associated with COVID-19. After about a dozen days he was feeling better, and he and his wife — whom the couple believe contracted a mild case of coronavirus — were able to come out of quarantine.

Col. Richard Dickens, who several months ago became the first person on Hurlburt Field to contract COVID-19, donates convalescent plasma during a blood drive Thursday. Convalescent plasma contains COVID-19 antibodies that can reduce the severity of the illness in people who are treated with it.

Dickens was able to return to work, where protocols to prevent the spread of the illness were in place. 

Following days in quarantine, Dickens joked Thursday that "you're eager to go anywhere, even if it's back to the office."

Col. Richard Dickens, who several months ago became the first person on Hurlburt Field to contract COVID-19, donates convalescent plasma during a blood drive Thursday Hurlburt Field. Convalescent plasma contains COVID-19 antibodies, which can reduce the severity of the illness in people who are treated with it.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the 505th CCW — which works on integrated training, tactics development and operational testing for command and control of air, space and cyberspace — has remained focused on its mission, even if it has had to find different ways to do it.

More:Hurlburt Field reports active-duty airman with COVID-19

"We figured out how to do things virtually, remotely," Dickens said.

Some other wing personnel have contracted the coronavirus, but Dickens wouldn't say how many, citing operational security concerns.  

Just as was done recently with the COVID-19 vaccine from the Pfizer pharmaceutical company, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in August issued an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma for the treatment of COVID-19 in hospitalized patients.

According to the American Society of Hematology, as of late last month more than 100,000 people with COVID-19 in the United States have been treated with convalescent plasma. Severe adverse events, most unrelated to the plasma, was observed in just 1% of cases.

Col. Richard Dickens, who several months ago became the first person on Hurlburt Field to contract COVID-19, donates convalescent plasma during a blood drive Thursday Hurlburt Field. Convalescent plasma contains COVID-19 antibodies, which can reduce the severity of the illness in people who are treated with it.

"It's great to think that someone else could potentially benefit" from his plasma donation, Dickens said Thursday. He added that he hopes that the airmen under his command, even if they don't have convalescent plasma, will see his donation as an example for them to donate blood.

His donation, Dickens said, is "a good opportunity ... to show our airmen that here's a good opportunity to give back to your community."

The plasma donation is not the first time Dickens has used his experience with COVID-19 to help others. At the request of the 1st Special Operations Wing, the host unit at Hurlburt, Dickens recorded a couple of Facebook videos earlier this year to detail his experience with the illness.

As the pandemic continues, Dickens said his experience with COVID-19 "gives me a firsthand ability to talk to others, an ability to relate to folks" who have COVID-19 or are concerned about contracting it.