Share on Pinterest
The American Red Cross says the COVID-19 outbreak has drastically reduced blood donations needed for surgeries, transfusions, and transplants. Getty Images

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub and follow our live updates page for the most recent information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new coronavirus is testing healthcare systems worldwide where communities across the country are instilling restrictions on where people can go.

That includes limiting the size of gatherings. The latest guidance came Monday, Mar. 16, when President Donald Trump said they should be limited to 10 people or less in the United States.

That’s of particular concern to the American Red Cross, which regularly holds blood drives to keep up with the demand for blood, even absent of a global pandemic.

The Red Cross said Tuesday that 2,700 blood drives have been canceled across the country due to concerns over COVID-19. That has resulted in 86,000 fewer blood donations.

Officials at the nonprofit organization say about 36,000 units of red blood cells are needed every day in the United States — even when there isn’t a pandemic.

“As a nation, this is a time where we must take care of one another, including those most vulnerable among us in hospitals,” Gail McGovern, president and chief executive officer of the American Red Cross, said in a statement.

“One of the most important things people can do right now during this public health emergency is to give blood,” she continued. “If you are healthy and feeling well, please make an appointment to donate as soon as possible.”

Her request was echoed Thursday morning by U.S. Surgeon Jerome Adams who urged healthy, young individuals to donate blood.

Many of the concerns of donating involve gathering in groups at donation sites, whether they be workplaces, college campuses, or schools. Many already have been shuttered entirely.

But even without a pandemic, the world needs your blood.

There’s nothing particularly special about the new coronavirus that requires extra blood donations, but there’s still a consistent need for the live-saving plasma.

Dr. Pampee Young, chief medical officer for the American Red Cross, told Healthline that cardiac surgeries, organ transplants, and platelet needs of people with cancer don’t stop because of a global emergency.

“We are very concerned with keeping up the levels we need on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “Those needs are not likely to change.”

One thing that may slow down is the number of car accidents that require a person to need a blood transfusion. With more people working from home and fewer going out socially, there’s naturally fewer cars on the road.

But the Red Cross still needs people to get in their cars and donate blood.

“The need for blood is constant,” Young said. “As the epidemic gets worse, we’re quickly losing our donors.”

Indeed, the Red Cross’ plea for healthy people to donate included a statement from Dr. Robertson Davenport, director of Transfusion Medicine at Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“I am looking at the refrigerator that contains only one day’s supply of blood for the hospital,” he said. “The hospital is full. There are patients who need blood and cannot wait.”

The dilemma over donating is particularly acute for adults over the age of 65, who have a higher risk of developing more severe problems if they contract COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC recommends that people at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 avoid places where there are crowds and stay home as much as possible if there’s a detected outbreak in their town.

Young said that makes it harder to get those people to donate during the outbreak, which further shortens their supply of available blood. But she knows not everyone can make that trip.

“We absolutely understand why people don’t want to come to a blood drive,” she said.

The CDC recommends that all people wear cloth face masks in public places where it’s difficult to maintain a 6-foot distance from others. This will help slow the spread of the virus from people without symptoms or people who do not know they have contracted the virus. Cloth face masks should be worn while continuing to practice physical distancing. Instructions for making masks at home can be found here.
Note: It’s critical to reserve surgical masks and N95 respirators for healthcare workers.

In response to the virus, the Red Cross says it has instituted several safety precautions.

Those include checking the temperature of anyone who comes into a donation site — a precaution as fever is a keynote symptom of COVID-19.

Other measures include sanitizing workstations and tablets that donors can use to fill out questionnaires, practicing social distancing such as keeping people 6 feet or more apart, spacing out donation stations, and timing donors so they aren’t huddled into one room at the same time.

On Monday morning, I went onto the American Red Cross website and made an appointment for that afternoon at a donation site on the north side of Oakland in California’s Alameda County.

As I drove to my appointment — after waiting through the long lines at the grocery store — I saw a sign someone had put up on a highway overpass: “We’re all in this together.” A large red paper heart was at the end.

Before I even reached for the door handle (using my sleeve as a barrier), a sign told me all who enter must have their temperature checked. I was told those who have higher temperatures are then referred to available healthcare services.

But I was good at a chill 98.2 degrees, so I was led in to complete my registration.

I noticed staff wiping down surfaces and laptops that donors can use to answer questions that could affect their ability to donate.

I still decided to use my smartphone to answer those questions, just to be safe.

After I entered my answers, I was led back into a room for further testing. That included a direct, in-person question about whether I had recently been in Wuhan, China, the center of the outbreak. I have not.

After checking my temperature again, along with my pulse and heart rate, I was led back into the collection room.

There were about a dozen stations available, but only three were being used. It took about 20 minutes to get the needed blood into a bag, including a few tubes to test my blood for whether it could be used.

My blood won’t be tested for the new coronavirus, a process that’s limited at this point all across the country.

I did, however, get some Cheez-Its and Chips Ahoy! cookies, along with a juice box, as I waited 15 minutes after my donation.

About 10 hours later, Alameda County and five other Bay Area counties would issue orders for citizens to shelter-in-place, meaning people were encouraged to stay home for nonessential travel.

While it doesn’t specifically list blood donation as an acceptable reason to leave my house, trips to medical facilities are, as well as “businesses that supply other essential businesses with the support or supplies necessary to operate.”

I think it’s fair to say that blood is essential to a hospital’s business.