Why It's So Important to Donate Blood Right Now, and How to Do It Safely

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It's safe to donate blood — and it's more important now than ever before.
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With stay-at-home orders gradually being lifted, you may be excited 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.

"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.

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.

"Seventy-five percent of our blood supply used to come from community blood drives, but all of ours have been canceled since March," says Andrea Cefarelli, senior executive director of donor recruitment and marketing at the New York Blood Center.

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.

Now, Cefarelli says, her organization is operating with only 19 donor centers in the New York City area. That was adequate when hospitals were focused on COVID-19 patients, but as they start to bounce back to normal, the need for blood for procedures like elective surgeries is rebounding quickly.

Indeed, as people begin to venture outside their homes again, 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.

In addition, she says, hospitals expect to see 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.

"In March and April, demand for blood dropped by about 30 percent, but now we're rising back up to pre-COVID levels," 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."

As an additional incentive to donors, the American Red Cross announced in June that for a limited time it will test 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.

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.

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.

Tip

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:

  • If you're a man, you must wait three months (instead of a year) after having sex with another man
  • If you're a woman, you must wait three months (instead of a year) after having sex with a man who has had sex with other men
  • 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.

What if You've Already Recovered From COVID-19?

If you tested positive and have since been symptom-free for at least 14 days, you may be eligible to donate what's called convalescent plasma. "Individuals who are fully recovered from COVID-19 can help save lives, as their blood contains antibodies that can help COVID-19 patients fight the disease," says Claudia Cohn, MD, PhD, chief medical officer of AABB. Contact a local blood center or visit COVIDplasma.org for more information.

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 public settings where social distancing is difficult to stick with, to prevent virus transmission, and it's a requirement for all donors and staff at 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, since 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 (and since that may limit their availability, donors are encouraged to bring their own).

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," Dr. Cohn says. "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.

Is This an Emergency?

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 infections, it is best to call your doctor before leaving the house if you are experiencing a high fever, shortness of breath or another, more serious symptom.
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