Blood Donation in the Age of COVID-19: Everything You Need to Know

It's safe to donate blood — and it's more important now than ever before.
Image Credit: LIVESTRONG.com Creative

After months of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, you may be itching to book an appointment at your hair salon or plan a night out at your favorite restaurant. But there's something even more important that should be on your radar: donating blood.

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"Blood donations are essential for hospitals, even in the midst of a pandemic," Ross Herron, Jr., MD, chief medical officer at the American Red Cross, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

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In fact, individual donations are more crucial now than ever before. While just about every business and industry has felt the ripple effects of the pandemic and subsequent social-distancing measures, blood collection agencies have been especially hard-hit.

"A significant portion of our blood supply used to come from community blood drives," says Andrea Cefarelli, senior executive director of donor recruitment and marketing at the New York Blood Center, noting that drives were canceled for several months after the pandemic hit. While they've "been successful in adding more each month," she says, by April 2021, "we're still only at about 60 percent of our pre-pandemic number."

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In light of the coronavirus pandemic, LIVESTRONG.com is raising awareness about the urgent need for people to donate blood with our Give Blood, Give Back series.

Operating with fewer donor centers and drives was adequate when hospitals were focused on COVID-19 patients, Cefarelli says, but as they work to get back to normal, the need for blood for procedures like elective surgeries is rebounding quickly.

Indeed, as people venture outside their homes more, the need for blood becomes even more urgent.

"Blood is used for more than just surgery — for example, cancer patients are returning to chemotherapy treatments, but they often require donated blood to help them get through it," Cefarelli notes.

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In addition, she says, hospitals are seeing more patients who need blood for trauma care after things like car or bicycle accidents. "Having enough stores may literally be the difference between life and death for them," she stresses.

"During 2020, Red Cross blood drive cancellations tripled compared to the year prior, mostly due to the pandemic. In fact, we saw our blood drives at high school and colleges drop by more than 50 percent compared to the year before," Dr. Herron says. "It's really important that people start donating again so hospitals have an adequate supply of blood to save people's lives."

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Since June 2020, the American Red Cross has been testing all blood, platelet and plasma donations for COVID-19 antibodies, which can help provide insight into whether donors may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus.

As part of this effort, plasma from whole blood donations made at Red Cross blood drives that test positive for COVID-19 antibodies were also able to help coronavirus patients in need of convalescent plasma transfusions. Convalescent plasma is a type of blood product collected from people who have recovered from COVID-19 and contains antibodies that might help those actively fighting the virus. The Red Cross is no longer collecting convalescent plasma, explaining on its website that they "have been able to build a sufficient supply ... to meet the foreseeable needs of COVID-19 patients."

Yes, It's Safe to Donate Blood

Even if you're not squeamish about needles, your urge to be a good Samaritan may pale in comparison to your concerns about getting infected with the novel coronavirus. But blood donation groups across the country are 100 percent devoted to making sure you stay safe, Dr. Herron says.

Can You Donate Blood After Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Yes, you can. Getting the vaccine does not disqualify you from donating blood, per the American Red Cross. Their recommendations are based off of guidance from the FDA.

And you don't have to wait until you're fully vaccinated, either. You can donate blood after getting the first or second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine. It's also OK to donate following the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Also important to know: If you're an eligible donor, you don't have to wait to donate blood until after you've gotten the vaccine, but you should be feeling well and be free of symptoms, according to the American Red Cross.

If you do not know which type of COVID-19 vaccine you received or you have gotten a live-attenuated vaccine, then you will have to wait two weeks before donating blood. Live-attenuated vaccines use a weakened form of the virus and are currently not being used in the United States. The types of available vaccines in the U.S. are mRNA (e.g. Pfizer and Moderna) and viral vector (J&J).

What to Know Before Donating Blood

Here's the rundown on the latest donor safety guidelines and what you can do to keep yourself and others healthy.

1. Make an Appointment

In the past, donation centers were only too happy to accommodate a walk-in, Dr. Herron says. Now, to maintain appropriate social distancing and ensure there's adequate time in between donors to sanitize shared surfaces, you'll need to book in advance.

Use our interactive map or visit RedCrossBlood.org, AmericasBlood.org or AABB.org to find a drive or donation site near you.

2. Before You Go, Check That You're Feeling Healthy

You should only donate if you're feeling well, says Ralph Vassallo, Jr., MD, chief medical and scientific officer at nonprofit blood bank Vitalant. Although there are no reported cases of the coronavirus spreading via blood transfusion, you could still potentially infect staff or others around you during your donation.

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If you have a fever, cough, difficulty breathing, headache or GI upset like vomiting or diarrhea, stay home and reschedule your appointment.

There are a few other general eligibility requirements to keep in mind, too. You must weigh a minimum of 110 pounds and be at least 17 years old (or 16 with parental consent), for example, according to the American Red Cross.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the FDA has announced changes to some of the other restrictions to expand who can donate:

  • People assigned male at birth (AMAB) must wait three months (instead of a year) after having sex with someone also AMAB
  • People assigned female at birth (AFAB) must wait three months (instead of a year) after having sex with someone who is AMAB who has had sex with other people AMAB
  • You must wait three months (instead of a year) after getting a tattoo or piercing
  • You must wait three months (instead of a year) after traveling to a malaria-endemic area

Note that blood donation organizations are not required to implement these changes, so it's best to check with your donation center if you fall into any of the above categories.

3. Stick to Social Distancing

Just like you would at the grocery store or pharmacy, try to keep at least six feet of distance between yourself and others both on your way to the donation center and while you're donating, in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)'s social distancing guidelines. Since the virus is spread by respiratory droplets, this distance can help you avoid coming into contact with an infected person's germs (and keep you from inadvertently spreading the virus if you happen to be infected).

To help you achieve this, all beds, as well as furniture in waiting and refreshment areas, are spaced at least six feet apart.

"To give it some context, before COVID-19, if we were offered the chance to hold a blood drive in a room that was 20 square feet, we'd take it," Cefarelli says. "Now we won't do it anyplace that's under 2,000 square feet."

Organizations have also redesigned their approach to mobile collections and, when using buses, have modified the interiors to allow for appropriate social distancing.

4. Wear a Face Mask

Of course, maintaining the six-foot rule won't be possible when it comes to interacting with the staff members who prep you to donate, which is why you should wear a face mask.

The CDC recommends everyone wear a face mask in areas of "substantial or high transmission," regardless of vaccination status. Masks are required at many (if not all) blood drives and donation centers. Staff wear surgical masks, but you can wear a cloth one.

5. Get a Temperature Check at the Door

Since a fever is one of the hallmark symptoms of COVID-19, you'll have your temp checked before you enter a donation area. If it's over 99.5 degrees, you'll be turned away. The same rule applies for staff members, who get a temperature check before they start a shift.

You can expect a more thorough health screening once you're inside. Blood donors have always been required to undergo a "mini-physical," Dr. Herron says, where pulse, blood pressure and blood hemoglobin levels are all measured (the latter screens for anemia). But now, the screener will also ask about COVID-19 symptoms like a cough, trouble breathing and head or body aches. Any potential donors with these symptoms will be sent home.

6. Wash Your Hands

Make sure your hands are clean when you arrive at the donation site, and practice good hand hygiene throughout your visit, washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or rubbing down your digits with an alcohol-based sanitizer after touching a shared surface, using the bathroom, coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.

Make sure to wash your hands once you're done donating blood and before you hit the refreshment area, because you've been on a high-touch surface (the bed).

Donation sites are doing their part to keep things clean, too. Anything that's touched by staff or a donor is disinfected in between uses, Cefarelli says. Blankets offered to keep donors comfortable while they donate are also washed after every use.

All donation sites also continue to follow safety practices like discarding needles after each use and sanitizing your skin before drawing blood.

7. Take Care of Yourself Before and After Your Donation

There's no evidence that you can catch coronavirus from the act of giving blood. "It is important to dispel concerns," says Claudia Cohn, MD, PhD, chief medical officer of AABB. "Individuals are not at risk of contracting COVID-19 through the blood donation process or via blood transfusion since respiratory viruses are generally not known to be transmitted by donations or transfusions."

There's also no evidence that donating weakens your immune system, according to the Rhode Island Blood Center.

Still, you should take steps to care for yourself before and after to stay as healthy as possible. The American Red Cross recommends doing the following:

  • Get at least eight hours of sleep the night before your appointment
  • Eat a healthy, balanced meal before donating
  • Stay hydrated by loading up on non-alcoholic fluids before and after
  • Avoid any heavy lifting or vigorous exercise afterward

Follow our step-by-step guide to donating blood for a safe and healthy appointment.

Additional reporting by Jessica Migala

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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