The Safe Way to Donate Blood During the Coronavirus Pandemic
With blood supplies critically low, giving now can help, especially if you've already recovered from COVID-19
Wanting to do something to help out my community during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I decided it was time to roll up my sleeve—literally!—and look into donating blood near my home in Los Angeles.
The need now is clear: The nation’s blood stores are at critical levels, according to the Food and Drug Administration. But that’s not because there has been a surge in the need for blood: Treating COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, typically doesn’t require blood transfusions.
Instead, it’s because blood donations have dropped sharply during the coronavirus pandemic. As of April 5, roughly 14,000 blood drives across the country had been canceled, resulting in at least 425,000 fewer blood donations, says Greta Gustafson, spokesperson for the American Red Cross, the nation’s leading nonprofit disaster-relief organization that provides about 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply.
Can You Donate if You Had COVID-19 and Are Now Recovered?
Yes! In fact, your blood is in extra high demand right now. That’s because after you’ve been exposed to an infection your body develops antibodies, or proteins in your blood that can help protect from getting the disease a second time. And sharing that blood—called convalescent plasma—with others, especially healthcare workers on the front lines, might provide protection to people who receive it.
Researchers aren’t certain whether this occurs with the new coronavirus, but last week the FDA announced it was partnering with the Mayo Clinic to investigate that possibility. “Convalescent plasma is being evaluated as treatment for patients seriously ill with COVID-19,” says Bhatt at Northwestern.
Note that not every blood donation site is accepting convalescent plasma, so check first with the American Red Cross or the American Association of Blood Banks. You can also see if a hospital near you is accepting convalescent plasma as part of the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project.
Are There Any Restrictions on Whether You Will Be Able to Donate?
Yes, though in response to the shortage, the FDA last weekend loosened some restrictions, making it easier for gay men as well as people with recent tattoos to donate.
But some restrictions remain in place. For example, the FDA bans donations from people who have traveled within the past 28 days to countries with high COVID-19 infection rates, such as China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea. (This could be in part because of the likelihood you might pass the disease to a healthcare worker or another donor.) There are also limitations if you recently traveled to places with high rates of malaria—which is transmitted through contaminated blood—including Angola, Bangladesh, Burundi, Madagascar, and Mozambique.
You also won’t be able to donate if you take certain medications, including drugs that affect bleeding, such as warfarin (Coumadin), Plavix, and Effien; have low iron levels; weigh less than 110 pounds; or are under the age of 17 (in some states you can donate at age 16 with parental consent).
Finally, don’t donate if public health experts say that you need to stay at home because you’re at high risk because you’re older or have underlying health conditions.
What Can You Do to Protect Yourself and Others While Donating?
Gustafson, from the Red Cross, emphasizes that staff at all blood donation sites are taking extra safety precautions. That means, in addition to wearing gloves and changing them between donors, staff have been instructed to frequently disinfect all surfaces, such as the tables donor lie or sit on, as well as equipment and all high-touch areas.
You should be just as careful, practicing scrupulous hygiene before, during, and after your visit. Specifically, that means:
Practice social distancing. At the Red Cross site I went to, chairs in the waiting room were placed 6 feet apart, and Gustaffson says that is the policy nationwide. But after donating, and feeling a little woozy, it was harder for me to do that while in the canteen where you get snacks and water. Try to be mindful of how close you sit to others, and move away so that your chair is at least 6 feet from others.
Wear a face covering. Of course, the person who draws your blood will need to get very close while drawing your blood. That’s one reason Red Cross staff are required to wear face masks, Gustafson says, as everyone at my donation site did.
But you should wear one, too. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that everyone wear a mask when in public. If you unknowingly have the virus, that reduces the risk of you spreading it, especially if you cough or sneeze. The donation site I went to did not provide masks for donors, so take your own.
Limit what you touch. I tried to touch as few surfaces as possible during my visit. So did Tracy Preda, of Downey, Calif. She donated at the same time I did yesterday—her first time, prompted by a friend’s father whom she recently learned is dependent on donated blood to survive. Preda’s advice: “Just don’t touch your face.”
Use hand sanitizer. When I visited, there was hand sanitizer at every turn. And I used it, often: before I touched the computer keyboard to fill out a brief questionnaire, after I stood up from my chair, before my snack, after my snack, and even on the way out the front door.
Take wipes. I forgot mine. But luckily another donor—Miguel Aleman, of Lindwood, Calif., who says he is a regular at giving blood—brought some and shared with me. I used one to wipe the door handle as we left the building together—6 feet apart.
Plan ahead. One of the best steps you can take is to schedule your visit in advance. To find a location and time slot, check with the American Association of Blood Banks or the American Red Cross website (800-RED-CROSS).
On the Red Cross website, you can register and sign up for a RapidPass, basically a ticket that you download to your phone or print out. Doing that before you get to the facility reduces how much time you spend when signing in. It also allows you to avoid having to complete forms, and touch pens or computer keyboards, when you arrive.
One tip I learned the hard way. Your pass is good for only 24 hours, so don’t get it days before you arrive.