There have been no reported cases of people getting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from a blood transfusion.
“We all know the media is rife with other topics. This was not one that managed to make it to the top of most pressing topics in 2020 and 2021,” said Megan Robinson. Robinson is the executive director of the Western North Carolina Chapter of the American Red Cross. In a presentation to the Buncombe County Commissioners, she said blood supplies have been running low, the need was “critical,” and she expected the trend to continue through the rest of the year.
Robinson said supply levels were good at the onset of the pandemic when elective surgeries were not allowed. Then, when these procedures resumed, the problem was exacerbated by demand for convalescent plasma, which, rich in COVID antibodies, is being used for experimental treatments. Added to the mix is hesitancy about going outside and, in light of ever-changing conclusions about how the disease is transmitted, having somebody put a needle in one’s arm.
It is a widespread practice to deflect questions about safety in donation centers to a November 13 statement from the Centers for Disease Control that maintains, “There have been no reported cases of people getting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, from a blood transfusion. Generally, respiratory viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 are not spread by blood transfusion.” The statement further assured, “People who want to donate blood are evaluated for any current or past illness. If they are ill at the time of donation, they cannot donate blood.”
But, to protect people going inside a building with other people from experiencing the exposure feared for attendees of school, church, restaurants, or gyms; the Red Cross follows enhanced procedures at blood drives and donation centers. Even before COVID, Red Cross employees had to wear gloves and frequently change them; disinfect touched surfaces between donations; use a separate, disposable, non-reusable collection set for each donor; clean the donor’s arm with aseptic scrub; and screen for wellness before the collection.
Enhanced safety measures
During the pandemic, the three W’s are being enforced at collection sites, surfaces are undergoing “enhanced disinfection,” beds and chairs are spaced six feet apart, and staff members are required to pass a health screen before reporting to work. The change most unique to blood drives is the blankets provided to persons donating platelets will be washed between use. Since that could result in scarcity, these donors are requested to bring their own.
Moving in the direction of less rigidity, to help increase blood supplies during COVID, the United States Food and Drug Administration reduced, from one year to three months, the abstinence period for gay men wanting to donate. The change also affects, among others, persons with recent tattoos or piercings. The change was described as aligning with guidelines in other developed countries, but activist groups protest it did not go far enough and charge the restrictions are based on fear of AIDS transmission and not science.
Robinson said hundreds of blood drives, which used to be booked 18 months in advance, have been canceled in Buncombe County alone since COVID. With COVID, local shortages cannot be replenished by neighboring communities because, said Robinson, “the shortage is universal.” So, now, organizations may schedule a drive with less than a month to organize and recruit donors.
Individuals may donate after scheduling an appointment at the Red Cross’ Edgewood Road campus or signing up for any Bloodmobile drive. To more expeditiously address the problem, though, the organization needs hosts for blood drives. A qualified location would have a single, open area with at least 800 square feet. By way of utilities, it should have restrooms with running water on the same floor, individual room temperature control, good lighting, at least four electrical outlets, and wireless. The site must be ADA-compliant, which includes having handicap parking and wheelchair accommodations. Robinson said a host need only turn on the lights and open the door.
She said the local chapter had run blood drives in vacant storefronts. Elsewhere in the nation, some unusual suspects have stepped up. For example, in Las Vegas, the Mob Museum (a.k.a. the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement) hosts an annual blood drive. Specifically for COVID, the Skirvin Hilton in Oklahoma City entered donors in a chance to win a free Valentine’s booking with a $250 gift card. Resorts World Casino in New York also availed two of its casinos.
Other areas are getting into gimmicks to promote blood donation. In Arizona, sports fans feeling withdrawal from the competition can cast a vote for the Coyotes, Diamond Backs, Suns, or Mercury when they donate. (Go Team!) Buncombe County is hosting its 11th annual Battle of the Badges February 24, from 8AM-5:30PM, at First Baptist Church on 5 Oak Street. Whichever sworn department donates the most blood wins. It’s the chapter’s second-largest event of the year, and donor slots are free and open to the public with preregistration.
Demographically speaking, blood types characteristic of members of the Black community are in especially short supply. This is explained as a combination of congenitally higher rates of leukemia and sickle-cell anemia, the higher risk of COVID infection among essential workers, and the disproportionate distribution of community blood drive cancellations.
Persons interested in donating can call 828-258-3888; those interested in hosting can go to redcrossblood.org and click on the “Hosting a Blood Drive” tab. Chair Brownie Newman closed, saying so many people in semi-shutdown are searching for ways to help, and this would be one of them.