Need to Get Out of the House? Give Blood – It’s Needed More Than Ever

March 18, 2020 2:22 PM

Canceled blood drives across the country have driven the supply critically low, but demand is high and donor centers have new safety measures in place.

Blood types

Updated on March 23, 2020: Since the initial publication of this story, we have been gratified to learn that many people have made blood donation appointments. Donating blood will continue to be an acceptable reason to leave home under state level orders limiting public activity, for example under Michigan’s exemption for volunteering for operations that provide “necessities of life.”  If an appointment is not immediately available in your area, rest assured that the need for blood is constant, and that new blood drives are being added, and schedule an appointment for a later time.  

Editor’s note: Information on the COVID-19 crisis is constantly changing, along with research being done by investigators everywhere. For the latest numbers and updates on this global pandemic, keep checking the CDC’s website. For the most updated information from Michigan Medicine about the outbreak, visit the hospital's Coronavirus (COVID-19) webpage. For the full list of COVID-19 related articles from the Michigan Health and Health Lab, visit our COVID-19 coverage page.

Last week, the doctor in charge of one of the nation’s largest hospital blood banks stood in front of a refrigerator that was supposed to be full of blood, plasma and platelets.

Instead, it held enough for just one day’s worth of organ transplants, cancer treatments, trauma care and operations on babies born with heart defects. What was to blame? The cancellation of dozens of blood drives at churches, schools, community centers and universities that had shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

So Robertson Davenport, M.D., sat down and wrote a letter he had never written before.

“The hospital is full. There are patients who need blood and cannot wait,” he wrote. “In this time of worry and stress, we need calm and reasoned responses. I have an appointment to donate blood tomorrow morning. Will you join me?”

Davenport, who directs the transfusion medicine program at Michigan Medicine, notes that giving blood qualifies as an acceptable reason to leave the house, even for those who are following public health officials’ order to stay home except for essential trips.

Special coronavirus considerations

Although many community blood drives are on hold, American Red Cross donor centers are still open. Some community locations are still hosting drives too – including several on the University of Michigan campus that have been scheduled in recent days.

They’ve put extra precautions in place to make sure donors are safe from infection, such as checking donors’ temperatures, spacing beds further apart and enhancing disinfection of equipment.

And although no evidence has emerged that coronavirus can travel from blood donors to recipients, extra screening of donors for symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is in place.

A need that could get more urgent

Davenport worries that as the coronavirus pandemic goes on, the shortage of blood caused by canceled drives will only get worse.

SEE ALSO: U-M Pathologist: Why We Need You to Donate Blood Now

Right now, hospitals like those at Michigan Medicine are cutting back on non-urgent operations that might require blood transfusions. Davenport and his team are monitoring their supply, keeping leaders in the hospital command center informed, and using triage tactics to decide how to use the blood products on hand.

But car crashes, ruptured aneurysms, newly diagnosed cases of leukemia and liver transplants can’t be planned or predicted.

Worse yet, a particular treatment that could help save the lives of people with the worst cases of COVID-19 needs a lot of blood, he notes.  

It takes blood products from 10 donors just to start a patient on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, a life support system that takes over for the heart and lungs.

And it takes blood from two to three more donors every day just to keep that one patient on ECMO until their organs can recover.

SEE ALSO: Feeling Helpless About the Coronavirus? 10 Things You Can Do

That’s why donors need to give blood now, so that it will be ready in case ECMO is needed in the coming weeks for patients at Michigan Medicine and beyond.

Who can’t give right now

Another reason? As more people get infected through close contact with people in their community, or come down with milder cases of COVID-19, they become ineligible to give blood for a month.

The same goes for people who have recently returned from any of the countries with travel advisories related to COVID-19, including Italy, China, South Korea, as well as people who have recently been on cruise ships. But once a safe amount of time has passed, they should be able to give too.

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The usual blood donor screening is still in effect, so people who haven’t been eligible in the past because of medical conditions or other factors still can’t donate. That screening doesn’t include COVID-19 testing – so just as with other infectious diseases, giving blood is not a way to get a free test.

This makes it more important than ever for anyone who can give blood to step up and do it, Davenport says.

“If you need to get out of the house, and you’re an eligible donor, this is the time to find a donor center near you and make an appointment,” he says. “It’s safe, they’re screening everyone who is walking through the door, and you can save a life.”

For the most updated information from Michigan Medicine about the outbreak, visit the hospital's Coronavirus (COVID-19) webpage.

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