Blood Supplies Are Down—Here’s How I Gave Blood Safely During the Pandemic (And How You Can, Too)
Did you know that donated blood only has a shelf life of 42 days? That's part of the reason why nationally, the blood supply that was banked at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic has dwindled since the usual blood drives and bloodmobiles were canceled. Cut to now—it's months later, and the Red Cross is reporting inventories down by half, while demand is steady and possibly increasing as hospitals resume elective surgeries, urban unrest continues and a worse-than-usual hurricane season looms. Want to help? Here’s how to donate blood right now—according to someone who just did it.
What’s different about the testing now?Although there's great need, many people are reticent to visit a a hospital or other donation center at the same time as rates of infection are reportedly climbing—myself included. But I was inspired to get over my fear of these public places when I heard that the Red Cross, hospitals and other donation centers were offering FDA-approved antibody tests. So along with doing community service, I was going to get something back—I'd learn my antibody status.
Why is an antibody test important?
When your body fights off a virus, it produces antibodies to fight off the infection. After the infection has been neutralized, those antibodies remain in your plasma...so if you have recovered from Covid-19, the antibodies that fought it off will still be circulating in the plasma part of your blood. Historically, antibodies from patients who have recovered from all kinds of viruses have been used both to treat other people who are suffering with the same illness, and to develop a vaccine for that virus. There’s still a lot that we don’t know about antibodies and Covid-19, however many experts believe that having the antibodies offers you some immunity to the virus (how long these antibodies last or whether past infection protects you from getting another infection is unclear).
Am I disqualified from giving blood if I have had Covid-19?
Nope. Actually, if you have contracted Covid-19 and are now fully recovered, you are especially valuable to scientists because your so-called "convalescent plasma" might be useful as a treatment for seriously ill coronavirus patients.
Are there additional sanitation precautions in place?I got tested at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, since I have been impressed with their level of care for family members. Upon entering the facility, I was directed to put a mask on (over the mask and under the plastic face shield I was already sporting). I waited in a brief line six feet behind a flower delivery person, in order to get my temperature taken. Next, I had to show a picture I.D. and was told to take off the plastic gloves I'd worn in, to avoid cross-contamination (i.e., bringing outside germs on my gloves into the facility). I walked over to the hand sanitizer station and wiped it generously around my hands. I'd used it previously when I'd visited family—ah, the foamy alcoholic sanitizer of a simpler time.
What is the process of actually donating like?
I showed up promptly for my 1 p.m. appointment and filled out a clipboard with my name, address and birthdate, then was handed an iPad to take an online survey to determine my suitability as a donor. There were screens full of pharmaceuticals that made someone ineligible, lots of questions about international travel and exposure to sex workers and a list of diseases that I had never heard of. After returning the iPad, I was ushered into a small room where a nurse tested my hemoglobin level (red blood cell protein) with a finger prick. After an initial reading indicating anemia, my phlebotomist (that's a blood-taking technician) gave me another finger jab which a machine read as within non-anemic range.
I was ushered into a room lined with half-reclined easy chairs where a nurse inspected my veins. While it was hard to make pleasant conversation with her due to my wearing two face masks and a plastic face shield, she scrubbed the crook of my left arm clean, cheerily handed me a rubber ball and told me to make a fist, then nearly painlessly slid a small needle attached to a long hose. I watched a thin ribbon of dark blood make its way along the tubing, and hoped I could help someone with it. I was also curious to know if Covid-19 antibodies were swimming around in its burgundy furrows. I relaxed into the chair for half an hour, and the nurse handed me a card with a serial number on it to keep track of my contribution; she told me I'd get my antibody results within two weeks.
What are the usual blood donation protocols to remember?
Another selfish bonus of donating blood—you're encouraged to eat a solid, iron-rich meal before and after donation. (So that meant my post-donation double cheeseburger was therapeutic, not gluttonous.) And since you are withdrawing a pint of fluid from your body, you're also encouraged to drink extra water for the 24 hours before the donation and four additional eight-ounce glasses of water once you're done. And finally, remember to go easy on yourself for the rest of the day, since you might feel a bit dizzy or weak. I told myself I earned a bit of rest, since I'd not only contributed a potentially life-saving resource, I'd gotten over my fear of hospitals during a scary time for everybody's health. It's not red-cape-worthy, I get it—but it felt like one little thing I could do to help out.
If you would like to donate blood right now, read up on safety precautions and requirements here.