The American Red Cross estimates that someone needs a blood transfusion approximately every two seconds. National Blood Donor Month brings awareness to this need during the month of January when the blood supply tends to be at its lowest. Though, in the midst of the pandemic, that low, January trend has been felt by hospitals and clinics — and their patients — for months.
Claudia Cohn, MD, PhD, a pathologist with the University of Minnesota Medical School and M Health Fairview and the chief medical officer for the American Association of Blood Banks, explains why donating blood today is needed now more than ever and how choosing to give could equip those donors with new information about their exposure to COVID-19.
Q: What are some of the causes of low blood donation levels right now, and how does that affect someone’s health?
Dr. Cohn: The blood supply is typically lower during the winter months, since blood donations often decrease because of the holidays, travel schedules, inclement weather and illness. That is severely compounded this year with the raging COVID-19 pandemic, which has overwhelmed hospitals and did cancel numerous blood drives earlier in the year. But, the need for blood still exists, despite the virus — victims of car accidents still arrive in emergency departments, cancer patients still require chemotherapy, all of which use life-saving blood transfusions.
Q: What are some of the new benefits related to COVID-19 when giving blood?
Dr. Cohn: If you’ve ever been curious about whether or not you recently had the novel coronavirus, many blood centers will now test for COVID-19 antibody levels when you donate blood. In fact, if your levels are high, they will send you a letter requesting an appointment for you to donate convalescent plasma, which received FDA emergency use authorization for use in treating hospitalized patients with COVID-19. There is starting to be a nationwide shortage of convalescent plasma, so if you know you have had COVID-19, please contact your local blood center to learn how to donate convalescent plasma.
Q: How could getting the COVID-19 vaccine impact someone’s ability to donate blood or convalescent plasma?
Dr. Cohn: The FDA does not require a deferral on blood donations after a COVID-19 vaccine, however, some blood centers might implement a short-term (less than two-week) deferral after someone has been vaccinated, as some people feel mildly ill after their shot. The FDA does, however, defer COVID-19 convalescent plasma donations if you never had COVID-19 and received one of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Q: Are blood donations centers safe right now?
Dr. Cohn: Blood donation sites are taking measures to ensure donor safety. They have staggered donation appointments to avoid groups of people standing in line, and they have made sure all donation stations maintain social distancing. All surfaces are wiped down and all personnel are masked. It is probably safer to donate blood than it is to go to a crowded supermarket. If you are interested in donating, find and contact your local blood center.
Q: What are you doing in this area to advance public knowledge about the need for blood donations?
Dr. Cohn: The American Association of Blood Banks works with blood centers, hospitals and the wider community to advance public knowledge about the need for blood donations. This work ranges from educational webinars to public service announcements when the blood supply is low. In my role at the AABB as chief medical officer, I have interacted with multiple media outlets to get the word out about the need for more blood.
Dr. Claudia Cohn is an associate professor of laboratory medicine and pathology in the University of Minnesota Medical School. She is medical director of the M Health Fairview Blood Bank and leads the American Association of Blood Banks as chief medical officer. She conducts research in the field of transfusion medicine and focuses her efforts in two areas: patient blood management and platelet storage and utilization.
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