Blood Donation during COVID-19

American Red Cross staff have often had to rely on each other and on new protocol to get the blood needed for patients around the country.

Editor’s note: Interviews for articles in this issue of Pinal Ways were conducted in early or mid-May, and reflect the state of the industry at that time.

We all know the story because we all just lived through it. The coronavirus makes its way to America and not long after our whole world stops. Only, it didn’t actually all come to a halt. There were still plenty of people with health conditions totally unrelated to the virus, and some of those people still needed blood in order to be treated.

Lucky for them, there always remains a hardworking team with eyes focused on that mission, and they didn’t let fears over the virus stop them from getting as much blood as possible. They work for organizations like the American Red Cross, which continued to hold blood drives during the shutdown wherever someone would have them.

It wasn’t easy — blood collection during a pandemic comes with a certain set of challenges and logistics that many people may not realize. But as Karen Fontes, who oversees donor services recruitment for the Red Cross’s Arizona region, told Pinal Ways, there will always be a need for blood, and thus for someone to get it for those in need. Her job is to make sure there is a safe place for this to happen.

“It’s a constant need,” Fontes said. “There’s never a time where we have more than we can handle with regard to blood.”

For the Red Cross, “constant” is a common word. Staff and volunteers are constantly working to fill a constant barrage of emergency shortages in order to make sure all patients get what they need to survive. But like everyone else in the world, what had become a constant was thrown up in the air earlier this year.

As Fontes tells it, rumbling about a quickly changing environment for the Red Cross started happening around Monday, March 9, when fears about the fast spread of the coronavirus started materializing around the country. By the middle of the week, blood drive hosts were already canceling. Then some of Pinal County’s most loyal hosts, such as Central Arizona College and the Coolidge Public Library, started closing facilities, meaning large drops in the ability of local citizens to help out.

It got to the point where by the end of March, the Red Cross was holding employee-only blood drives while everyone worked from home. It was the sharpest drop in collection Fontes could recall.

Yet through these scary times, others were able to help fill some of the void. Local churches that were otherwise closed would make sure the doors were open for the Red Cross. When they could, Elks lodges and American Legion posts have been doing their part. And when they do put on a blood drive, spaces fill up at a rapid pace. They even noticed an increase in first-time donors.

““It’s been heartening to see when we do hold a blood drive, people are coming out,” Fontes said. “That’s really the beauty about it all. It’s strange how that happens, but I really do believe that 100%.”

When donors show up to a drive during the pandemic, things are a bit different. The Red Cross has used extra sterilization, checked the temperature of staff and donors when they come in, dropped the number of appointments at a given time from seven to four and provided masks to donors on site while requiring staff to wear their own. The organization also has had to disallow walk-in donors in order to maintain social distancing.

Keeping that distance is often a challenge. Blood drives are not allowed to take place outdoors because that could lead to contamination. When possible and as long as the weather was cooperating, check-in and paperwork could take place outside, but the donation itself had to be inside. And anyone who has been on one of the mobile blood drive buses knows how tight space can be.

However, donors have been assured that there is so far zero evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through the blood donation process. As far as Fontes knows, none of her staff has gotten sick during this time, which she said is a testament to how effective the safety protocol has been.

Once the blood does get collected, a different set of challenges kick in. Because Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey banned elective surgeries for a month, and because there were fewer traumatic injuries as people generally stayed off the roads, demand actually went down sharply. This made it hard to predict how much blood would actually be necessary, and because it only has a 42-day shelf life, there were worries about some of it going to waste.

Because of that, organizers like Fontes have to be flexible with their schedules, only announcing events in one- or two-week intervals as they assess how much blood would be needed at a given time.

Now as the world continues to reopen and adjust to an ever-changing environment, blood drives are starting to return to normal. Fontes said there continues to be a need for volunteers, as many of her regular helpers are older and might need to stay away from events for their own health. She said that when this first started, there was an uptick in volunteers as people stopped going to work, but that has subsided as the weeks went on.

Through all of this, Fontes said the staff that works these blood drives have been proving themselves as tireless heroes. She knows they are all more tired than they have ever been on the job, but they never complain and they never stop doing what it takes to make sure a stranger somewhere gets the blood they need to survive.

“They have had to implement a lot of new protocols very quickly and very thoroughly, and they’re really stepping up to the plate,” Fontes said. “They’re in there working with the public. I know it’s exhausting, but they believe in the mission as much as I do. I’m really proud of the staff and I’m grateful to work with this team.”