How to Donate Blood as Coronavirus Threatens the U.S. Supply

The nation’s blood supply faces a dire shortage.

“It’s an unprecedented situation,” said Dr. Pampee Young, chief medical officer of biomedical services at the American Red Cross. “We are already actively triaging units, determining which hospitals can and can’t get blood.”

While donor blood is not being used to treat coronavirus patients, transfusions are still needed for cases such as trauma, organ transplants or complications of childbirth.

“The worst case scenario could be a bleeding young patient who was in a car accident, and there’s no blood,” said Dr. Young. “We’re not quite there yet, but that is the ultimate fear.”

The Red Cross normally supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s blood. But as of March 18, more than 4,500 of its blood drives had been canceled, resulting in nearly 150,000 fewer donations. Typically, the Red Cross needs to receive 13,000 blood donations daily, so it has already lost around 11 days of stock. Red blood cells are viable for 42 days, platelets for only five, so it’s essential to keep new donations coming in.

Blood banks around the country are pleading for donors to step up.

Eduardo Nunes, vice president for quality, standards and accreditation at the AABB, formerly the American Association of Blood Banks, cited a recent Twitter message from a blood bank staffer and donor, who said she was in and out from donating in a total of 29 minutes.

“Given the supply and inventory levels, that person almost certainly saved a life,” Mr. Nunes said. “There are very few situations where, with less than an hour, you can do that.”

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Check the American Association of Blood Banks locator, visit the Red Cross website, or call 1-800-RED-CROSS. You can also find information through the America’s Blood Centers website.

Almost any healthy person can, although requirements may vary by state. Blood donation will impact neither your own health nor your immunity, experts say.

Talk to your local center about eligibility guidelines. In these new circumstances, you’ll be asked where you’ve recently traveled and what your personal coronavirus exposure has been. In most states you have to be 17 and above; with parental consent, some states allow donors to be 16. You must weigh at least 110 pounds.

There are no standing upper age limits. Dr. Claudia Cohn, director of the Blood Bank Laboratory at the University of Minnesota and chief medical officer of AABB, said that normally, older Americans are the country’s best donors.

“They give a disproportionate amount of blood,” Dr. Cohn said. “Even though we think their risk is very low, we want to protect them if they want to be careful about going out.”

That means blood centers are asking younger people to step up and donate more often than they usually do.

“This is not a blood-borne disease, that is clear,” Dr. Cohn said. “Blood itself is safe.”

Coronaviruses in general don’t seem to be blood transmissible, as evidence from earlier outbreaks of SARS and MERS has shown.

“We completely understand people are hesitant,” said Dr. Young of the Red Cross. “We want to reassure the public that we’re handling this with an abundance of caution.”

Many blood centers have substantially ramped up ordinary precautions, with staff members conducting extra temperature checks, on both themselves and donors. It’s recommended that gloves be changed more often. Efforts are being made to clean equipment more frequently and space donors at least six feet apart. Many centers have extended hours.

“With centers taking extra measures to eliminate risk, it’s safer than going to the store,” Dr. Cohn said.


“The recommendations are to shelter in place except for essential things,” said Dr. Young. “Public health officials recognize that blood donation is essential and they’ve made an exception for it.”

Need may be greater on the country’s East and West coasts, where there is more population density and a high number of confirmed cases.

In normal times, some blood is shipped nationally but most donations tend to remain local, said Dr. Joe Chaffin, the chief medical officer of LifeStream Blood Bank, in San Bernardino, Calif. His center, which supplies more than 80 hospitals in Southern California, is looking at a potential loss of 5,500 blood units.

“What we’re seeing,” Dr. Chaffin said, “is that our normal ability to replenish has evaporated. We’re nearly completely reliant on local donors.”

No. A rumor to this effect recently circulated on the internet. It is false.

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