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March 30, 2020

Canceled Blood Drives, Social Distancing Cause Nationwide Blood Shortages

Author Affiliations
  • 1Consulting Editor, JAMA Health Forum and JAMA
JAMA Health Forum. 2020;1(3):e200380. doi:10.1001/jamahealthforum.2020.0380

Facing severe blood shortages amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, blood collection organizations, such as America’s Blood Centers and the American Red Cross, are issuing urgent calls for healthy people to donate blood to replenish dwindling supplies.

Their pleas were reinforced last week by US Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, who urged healthy individuals, especially younger people, to donate blood. “Social distancing does not have to mean social disengagement,” he said.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also advocating for blood donation. “Routine blood donor screening measures that are already in place should prevent individuals with clinical respiratory infections from donating blood. For example, blood donors must be in good health and have a normal temperature on the day of donation,” the agency noted. “As communities are affected, it is imperative that healthy individuals continue to donate blood.”

Widespread social distancing and thousands of canceled blood drives has sharply curtailed blood donation. As of March 18, more than 12 000 blood drives had been canceled nationwide, with a projection of 355 000 fewer blood donations, according to the AABB (formerly the American Association of Blood Banks).

Blood collection organizations depend heavily on blood drives in workplaces and schools. For example, blood drives at these locations are the source of more than 80% of the blood collected by the American Red Cross, which supplies about 40% of the nation’s blood.

“The US blood supply is facing an unprecedented situation as our nation coordinates response efforts to COVID-19,” noted America’s Blood Centers, a group representing independent blood banks that together collect more than half of the US blood supply. Past shortages caused by events such as natural disasters or mass shootings had a more local or regional effect on blood supply, and other parts of the country helped supplement those shortfalls. Now, however, COVID-19 is “impacting communities across the country simultaneously and donors in all areas are needed,” the group said.

Blood and blood products have a limited shelf life, with red blood cells lasting up to 42 days and platelets 5 days. Although donated blood is not used to treat patients with COVID-19, it is still needed for patients with other conditions. The Red Cross said that the blood shortage could affect “patients who need surgery, victims of car accidents and other emergencies, or patients suffering from cancer.”

Typically, guidelines for prospective donors include being healthy with no fever or other signs of illness. Blood collection centers have instituted additional precautions to help protect donors and staff, such as checking the temperature of both staff and donors before donation, spacing beds to ensure social distancing between blood donors, and increasing disinfection of surfaces and equipment.

Whether the COVID-19 pandemic will affect blood collection practices in other ways is unknown. One long-standing restriction for blood donation in the US is an FDA mandate that men who have sex with men (MSM) cannot donate blood unless they abstain from such sexual contact for 12 months prior to donation—a policy put in place in 2015 after the FDA lifted the lifetime ban on such donations that was instituted in 1983 during the HIV/AIDS crisis. However, critics of the current policy say it is outdated, given advances in screening and testing for HIV. Last week, the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD launched a petition urging the FDA to repeal its restrictions regarding donations by MSM.

“The FDA needs to put science above stigma,” remarked Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO and president of GLAAD. “Gay and bisexual men…want to give blood and should be able to contribute to help their fellow Americans.”

Last November, the American Red Cross urged the FDA to loosen the restriction on blood donation by MSM, noting that “blood donation eligibility should not be determined by methods that are based upon sexual orientation.” The group also said it encourages the agency to consider reducing its deferral time for MSM from 12 to 3 months while further options are evaluated for the US, noting that the suggested change “is consistent with policy changes made by several other countries including Canada and Great Britain.”

Information about donating blood and eligibility criteria is available from the AABB, America’s Blood Centers, and the American Red Cross.

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