The Margin: Is donating blood safe? Do blood drives test for coronavirus?

Face masks and respirators aren’t the only vital medical resources in short supply — there is also a critical need for blood donations amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Blood banks across the country have seen donation drives scrapped and fewer people making or keeping appointments to give blood as the U.S. government and local jurisdictions have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by urging Americans to stay home. That’s included shutting down schools, restaurants and public venues in some states, and urging all nonessential employees to work from home in others.

Jessa Merrill, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross, told MarketWatch that Red Cross Blood Services must collect 13,000 donations a day to meet the need of the hospitals and patients it serves. Indeed, the Red Cross supplies about 40% of the nation’s blood. Yet since March 1, some 5,000 drives have been canceled, mostly at workplaces and schools that are themselves closed. And, as a result, there have been 170,000 fewer donations than there would typically have been.

“We’re facing a severe shortage right now,” she said — a sentiment being echoed by local blood banks such as the New York Blood Center, the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center in Texas and the Central California Blood Center.

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While canceled blood drives have represented the biggest hit to many blood banks’ supply, the fear of contracting the coronavirus as one comes into contact with other people at a donation clinic or drive has also kept some from giving blood.

But U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has said, “You can still go out and give blood. We’re worried about potential blood shortages in the future. Social distancing does not have to mean social disengagement.” Both the FDA and the CDC also released statements on Thursday encouraging healthy individuals to donate blood if they can. Even if you are sheltering in place, you can leave home to do “essential” things such as buy food, pick up medications — and donate blood.

‘One of the most important things you can do to ensure we don’t have another health-care crisis on top of coronavirus is to give [blood] now.’

American Red Cross

There have, meanwhile, been rumors going around that volunteering to donate blood is a backdoor means of getting tested for COVID-19 at a time when tests are in high demand and short supply. (It’s not — you won’t be tested for the coronavirus when you donate.)

So here is everything you need to know about giving blood during this pandemic.

1. Blood-donation centers are cleaner than ever. Giving blood was already a highly sanitized procedure, but it’s become even more so during the coronavirus pandemic. For example, your temperature is always taken before you give blood to ensure that you don’t have a fever. Now, your temperature will be taken before you’re even allowed to enter the donation area. The Red Cross has also provided extra hand sanitizer, which is used before entering the donor center. Beds have been spaced further apart to practice social distancing, and blankets are being laundered after every use instead of being shared. “We just simply added mitigation steps to an already very careful process,” said Merrill. See more information here.

2. You cannot catch the novel coronavirus by donating blood. This is a respiratory infection, and there is no evidence that it is transmissible by blood transfusion. People acquire it through respiratory droplets in the air after someone coughs or sneezes and after touching contaminated objects.

3. You will not get tested for the coronavirus when giving blood. A popular myth that’s circulating is that blood centers are screening for COVID-19, which effectively would mean donating is a way to get tested. That is false. Because it is not transmitted by blood, there is no reason for a blood donation center to test for it. You don’t get a flu test before donating, either. “Not only is testing for COVID-19 not recommended by the FDA or any public health agency [before giving blood], but there is no test for it in blood donation,” said Merrill. You will be screened for any respiratory symptoms like a runny nose, cough or shortness of breath when you show up.

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4. Your blood isn’t needed for coronavirus patients, per se — but here’s whom it is helping. Donated blood is a lifeline for people including the victims of car crashes and other emergencies; those undergoing organ transplants; and cancer patients, who may need blood products to boost their immune systems. The FDA says that every two seconds, a patient needs a blood transfusion.

5. Do not donate if you feel sick. You should only give blood if you are healthy and feeling well at the time of donation. You must also be at least 16 years old in most states (17 in others), and weigh at least 110 pounds.

6. Definitely don’t donate if you’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19, have been in contact with someone with COVID-19 or are showing COVID-19 symptoms. If you have a fever, and are experiencing cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, stay home — and call your local health department. If you’ve had close contact with someone diagnosed with or suspected of having COVID-19 in the last 14 days, you also cannot donate. And if you have been diagnosed with or have been suspected of having COVID-19, you must wait 28 days after your illness has fully resolved before you can donate.

If you are interested in donating blood, the following organizations can connect you to a local blood-collection site to schedule an appointment. What’s more, centers can arrange to call your mobile phone when they’re ready for you to come in, to minimize your time in the waiting area.

AABB: aabb.org

America’s Blood Centers: americasblood.org

American Red Cross: redcrossblood.org

Armed Services Blood Program: militaryblood.dod.mil

Blood Centers of America: bca.coop

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