According to the American Red Cross, someone in the U.S. needs blood every two seconds. Donated blood is essential in the healthcare landscape, especially during––and after––a pandemic.
“When the SARS-CoV-2 virus first came out, the initial fear in the blood community was that it could possibly be a transfusion-transmitted disease, much like HIV or Hepatitis C,” says Claudia Cohn, MD, PhD, a pathologist at University of Minnesota Physicians. “But, we quickly set those fears aside as there have been many other coronaviruses––like SARS and MERS––and none have ever been transmitted through blood before.”
The initial response to the crisis in Wuhan, in late January, was simply to say that anyone who has been through China, or in China, should be deferred from donating blood for 28 days to make sure they are not carrying the virus.
“Once the disease began to spread in the U.S., we realized that it wasn’t the threat of transmission through blood that we needed to worry about, but rather, the threat of donors not wanting to donate because they’re scared of becoming infected at the donation site,” Dr. Cohn says.
That fear was quickly realized. Though the blood supply has always been a little tenuous in the U.S., once the SARS-CoV-2 virus began spreading, all of the blood components became in short supply.
“We usually have enough red blood cells, but oftentimes we’re short on the universally compatible blood, like group O, and platelets,” Dr. Cohn says. “The American Red Cross, which is one of our blood suppliers, sends a daily snapshot of inventory around the country. Usually, you only see red for a day here or there after a hurricane or blizzard––but we were seeing red for every single component, every day, for about a week.”
After changes were made nationwide in hospitals and clinics regarding transfusion guidelines and the U.S. Surgeon General made a compelling statement about why people should continue to donate blood, inventory finally began to rise.
“And together, that actually sort of overshot the mark. We saw a short period with increased wastage because blood products are only good for a certain length of time,” Dr. Cohn says. “But it was very, very short, and then we began to stabilize and normalize.”
However, while blood supply is fine now, there are concerns––based on previous patterns––that the availability of blood products may drop off at the conclusion of the pandemic.
“Traditionally, after a disaster, there’s an altruistic surge of donors. Oftentimes, this results in too much blood being donated all at once––and then people just stop,” Dr. Cohn says. “So, what we need now are donors to continue coming out. We are worried that the pandemic is going to keep going through the remainder of the summer––at least––and we need to keep the blood supply flowing as long as we need to.”
Additionally, there is a huge need for those who have recovered from the virus to donate convalescent plasma.
“The idea is that convalescent plasma can be used to transfuse sick patients, give them a passive transfer of immunity and potentially even speed up their recovery from the virus,” Dr. Cohn says.
The bottom line–– people who are healthy, or who have recovered from the virus, should continue to go out and donate when they can. For more information on where to donate, visit the American Red Cross website or Memorial Blood Center website.