When the coronavirus emerged in the United States, it wasn’t just restaurants and retailers that suffered from lost business; blood banks experienced a devastating drop in donations. Blood drives were canceled, regular donors were too frightened to venture into donation centers, and a critical shortage of blood developed.
“Hospitals were being forced to ration blood products, and really only treat those people who were critically ill,” said Alana Mauger, communications manager for American Red Cross Blood Services. “That’s a scary situation to be in.”
Dangerous Shortages Put Lives at Risk
Every day, millions of Americans rely on donated blood to manage chronic diseases and survive health emergencies. Many of the 100,000 Americans living with sickle cell disease, for example, require regular blood transfusions to ensure their red blood cells can carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
Then there’s the gunshot victims, car crash patients, and others who need emergency transfusions mid-procedure. Those situations still occur every day, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic when all attention is focused on the treatment and prevention of the coronavirus.
Blood Banks Attract Donors With Free COVID-19 Antibody Testing
In an effort to attract blood donors who might otherwise stay home, the Red Cross and other local blood banks are offering free testing for COVID-19 antibodies with all blood, platelet, and plasma donations.
“The Red Cross hopes testing will provide critical insight into whether donors may have possibly been exposed to this coronavirus, as some COVID-19 carriers can be asymptomatic,” the Red Cross website explains. “We are committed to helping others in meaningful ways during this pandemic.”
In addition to the Red Cross, nonprofit blood banks like Vitalant in New Jersey hope that offering free antibody testing will encourage people to donate blood and help alleviate the dangerous shortage
“Literally every single day we are in situations where we need people to show up. It’s a critical shortage,” said Cliff Numark, chief of marketing for Vitalant. “People should give as soon as they can.”
How Is Coronavirus Changing Blood Donation?
In response to critical blood donation shortages and the dire need for new donors, the U.S Food and Drug Administration has updated the regulatory guidelines originally developed during the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Previously, the FDA guidelines stated that men who had sexual contact with other men could not donate blood for 12 months after their last applicable sexual encounter. The FDA abbreviated that time frame in April to only three months.
The Red Cross and other blood banks across the nation are also implementing strict safety protocols to prevent the transmission of COVID-19:
- Specific eligibility requirements for donors, including temperature checks before entering
- Enhanced disinfecting of surfaces and equipment
- All staff and donors required to wear face masks
- Single-use blankets
“These mitigation measures will help ensure blood recipient safety,” the Red Cross explains, “as well as staff and donor safety in reducing contact with those who may potentially have this respiratory infection.”