Grove Church Blood Drive 2020. Courtesy of the American Red Cross.
By Ronnie Allen Campman
Nonprofit Sector News
February 17, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to trigger blood shortages across the United States. However, new programs are now calling for not only blood donations but also convalescent plasma to fight the virus.
The blood shortage started when schools and businesses shut down in early March 2020, canceling thousands of blood drives that were planned, explained Rodney Wilson, an American Red Cross spokesperson. Along with the location of blood drives, posing a challenge is the current extreme winter weather. Snowstorms and more canceled more than 4,600 blood donations from late January into early February, especially in the Northeast.
On the opposite end of the USA, donations for the Blood Bank of Hawaii decreased about 15% in 2020, according to Chief Operating Officer Todd Lewis. (The Blood Bank of Hawaii is not affiliated with the American Red Cross.)
Yet, with blood drives cancelled and stay at home orders in place, a Hawaii man continues to donate blood and even hit a milestone of 600 donations during the pandemic. Gerald Yamane, 62, has donated blood every two weeks since 1976 with the Blood Bank of Hawaii.
“It is my purpose, my duty to help save the lives of the people and children of our ohana (family),” Yamane said. “If it’s not me, then who will? It’s my personal responsibility to do that.”
He says donating blood is beneficial for not only those who need it but also for himself.
“I have to be healthy to donate so I try to watch my weight and blood pressure so it’s a good beneficial relationship.”
In Hawaii and other states, donating blood has remained an essential activity allowed during lockdown. “Mothers are in the hospital delivering babies who might hemorrhage, grandfathers can still have severe heart attacks and need immediate heart surgery and people injured in car accidents with severe trauma need medical treatment,” Wilson said. “All of those things must be able to continue and blood donations make that possible.”
Those who have recovered from COVID-19 are encouraged to donate their convalescent plasma. These individuals contain COVID-19-targeted antibodies. Antibodies are found in plasma, which can be donated to hospital patients to strengthen their immune system while fighting COVID.
The American Red Cross’ Convalescent Covid Plasma Program launched in April of 2020. In the first three months of the program, the Red Cross distributed more than 14,000 convalescent plasma products to critically ill COVID-19 patients, according to the program’s 2020 annual report.
In January 2021, The Blood Bank of Hawaii also announced its “Fight COVID with COVID” campaign to increase COVID-19 convalescent plasma inventory until the vaccine is widely distributed, Lewis said. With the new, more contagious COVID-19 strains reaching the U.S. and the depletion of the national CCP supply, the goal of the campaign is to welcome 100-150 new donors a month, according to a Blood Bank of Hawaii press release.
“Only COVID-19 survivors have powerful antibodies to help hospitalized patients fight off the virus,” Lewis said.
However, now that there are more donors and less spaces available to host blood drives, donation centers are thinking more creatively. The Red Cross started working closely with churches, sports venues, police and fire stations—locations that don’t typically have a regular schedule of blood drives.
Safety protocols are in full effect at Red Cross blood drives across the country. Before donors walk in, temperatures are taken and hand sanitizer is used throughout the process. All donor touch-points are wiped down between each session. Every element of the blood drive is spaced further apart, like the blood donor beds, in accordance with the CDC guidelines.
At both Red Cross and Blood Bank of Hawaii blood drives, masks are required to be worn by staff and donors at all times.
At some blood drives, such as the Blood Bank of Hawaii, donations are being taken only by appointment to ensure social distancing. Health screenings are done prior to appointments as well.
To donate convalescent plasma, individuals must have a prior, verified diagnosis of COVID-19, but are now symptom-free and fully recovered. They must also meet regular blood donation eligibility requirements of being at least 17 years old and weigh 110 pounds. Donating convalescent plasma can take up to two hours while a regular blood donation takes 10 minutes.
Founded in 1941, Blood Bank of Hawaii is a nonprofit organization. Its mission is to provide a safe and adequate supply of blood, blood products and related transfusion services to Hawaii patients. As reported in a Hawaii Business magazine article, Blood Bank of Hawaii is the only provider for all 18 hospitals across the state of Hawaii, and a secondary provider for the military hospital at Tripler Army Medical Center, said CEO Kim-Anh Nguyen.
The American Red Cross was founded in 1881. Now the organization has more than 19,000 employees and 300,000 volunteers in the United States. Each year, the Red Cross collects more than 4.5 million blood donations and more than a million platelet donations. In 2020, the Red Cross distributed more than 6.4 million blood products to hospitals and transfusion centers, according to its 2020 annual report.