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The 4-1-1 on blood donation in the Midlands

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While the COVID-19 pandemic has put a halt to many things, it hasn’t stopped the need for blood donations in fact, the need is now greater. According to Kristen Boyle, donor recruitment account representative at the American Red Cross Blood Services here in Columbia, while we aren’t currently in a blood shortage, “we’re barely keeping the shelves full” and are “in a position where a shortage could happen.”

Looking for some quick reasons to donate? 

Every two seconds someone in America needs blood. 

The blood donation from one person has the potential to save three lives. 

The American Red Cross is providing free COVID-19 antibody testing with all blood donations for a limited time. 

This week, we talked with Kristen about blood donation, the current need + donating in a pandemic.

Can you tell me about the current need for blood?

I think what people forget is that the need never stops. One thing that people ask me all the time is “Do you guys need blood?We always need blood. Hospital patients, cancer patients, sickle cell patients – their needs never stop, even for COVID.

Twenty percent of our donations come from schools, which were cancelled in February. So all those drives we would have had from March into June didn’t happen. And then we began to see churches cancelling their services. A lot of churches have their blood drives on Sundays following services; so those didn’t happen. And then we saw businesses + corporate offices sending their employees home to work. So those blood drives were cancelled as well. 

Fortunately, hospitals also began to cancel a lot of elective surgeries, so things balanced out for a while. But it got to the point where someone who needed a blood transfusion was probably told to stay home at one point so that someone else, in a more dire need, could get those units.

I think people misunderstand that a blood transfusion is not always this dramatic, Grey’s Anatomy-type scenario. That happens, and blood certainly does go to trauma patients, but the majority of blood transfusions are everyday occurrences. New mothers, newborn babies, open heart surgery, cancer patients, burn victims – these are people who don’t just get a couple of units one time; they’re dependent on units frequently. That’s why there’s always a need. 

Can you explain the need for minority blood donations?

A patient who needs a blood transfusion is more likely to match up with a blood type from their own ethnicity. And that’s because, although we generally think of blood types as A, B, AB and O, there are a lot of antigens involved in blood typing and people who have certain antigens in their blood are going to match up with that similar blood type. 

Most of our African American donations came through the blood drives we had at schools. Following schools being cancelled, we saw a sharp decline in African American donations. About 30-40% of our donations go to African Americans and, right now, only about 12% of the donations we’re collecting are African American. 

Is it safe to donate blood right now?

It is absolutely safe to donate blood right now. Blood donations are covered under essential services for medical reasons. The CDC, the FDA, local government agencies like DHEC, have all said that not only are blood drives safe, but they’re necessary

The American Red Cross has taken every precaution we can to protect the safety of donors, our staff and volunteers. We take everyone’s temperature before we let them in, whether they’re a donor, staff or volunteer. Everyone is provided a face mask; there is social distancing at every point of the blood drive – everything is spaced six feet apart. We also sanitize all of the surfaces throughout the blood drive. 

You also can’t transmit a respiratory illness through a blood transfusion. So it is completely safe.

What if you’ve previously tested positive for COVID-19?

Whether you’ve had COVID or been around someone who had COVID, as long as you’ve been symptom free for 28 days, you’re able to come in and donate blood.

If you have had COVID, I would also encourage you to apply to the convalescent plasma program. While we would certainly love to have your blood, it is also equally as important to try to apply to that program so you can specifically help COVID patients

Where can I donate?

To find a blood drive near you, check out the American Red Cross blood donation website and enter your zip code. You’ll be able to make an appointment from that page.

Are appointments necessary to donate blood right now?

They aren’t necessary, but they are highly encouraged. If we see an appointment schedule for a blood drive is full, we’re taking very limited walk-ins because we don’t want that many people congregating in one area. But at the same time, we don’t want to discourage anyone from walking in if they’re in a position where they can’t guarantee the time or they can’t make an appointment.

But I would highly encourage you to make an appointment, not only for that reason, but if you go to our website or app and create a donor profile, that’s where you’ll get the antibody test results when you do donate.

Another reason to download our app is, several weeks after your donation, it’ll actually tell you where your blood goes.  

What is the donation process like?

It takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, everybody is a little different. After you make your appointment, you’re going to get an email the day of asking you to complete what we call our RapidPass. People are probably familiar with this giant booklet of information you have to read and it’ll ask you about 60 questions and we really try to consolidate that online. You’ll enter your name, weight and some other information about you. It’s going to ask all of those travel, medical, “how are you feeling today” questions, and it’ll give you a QR code. 

When you enter the blood drive and get your temperature taken, you’ll register on our computers. From there, it’s kind of like a free mini-physical. They’ll test your blood pressure, your hemoglobin, your iron, they’ll ask you a couple questions based on how you answered your RapidPass and they’ll make sure you’re physically okay to donate

Assuming you are, you’ll then get on the bed. The extraction process takes about 7-8 minutes, which is the quickest part. From there, you’ll get wrapped up and we’ll send you over to the snack area. You get free cookies and juice. I highly encourage everyone to get a cookie, even if you’re gluten-free, because when you donate blood you lose about a pound. That’s the start to finish for a whole blood donation

Power Red Donation

Another donation that people aren’t as familiar with is called Power Red Donation. If you are either of the O types, A negative or B negative, and you meet certain height and weight requirements, you qualify. Very similar to a plasma or platelet donation, we hook you up to a machine that cycles your blood. It’s going to only keep your red blood cells and return your plasma and platelets to you. So it’s not donating a full two pints, but it is a slightly more substantial donation. 

When you do a whole blood donation, we send that off and separate it into platelets, plasma and red blood cells. When you’re donating just the red blood cells we can get that to the hospital quicker. Oftentimes, newborn babies need just the red blood cells. And if you’re in a trauma situation and they can’t blood type you, we need to have just red blood cells for those situations. 

Is there anything else that potential blood donors should know?

I would just leave everyone with the thought: “what is the number one reason a person doesn’t give blood?” You probably assume that they’re scared of needles. But the reality is that most people don’t donate blood because no one has asked them to. That’s why it’s so important for us to keep the message ongoing and constantly on people’s minds. Because we know you probably can’t give blood six times a year, but if you can do it twice, three times, that would make such a difference.

I saw a statistic once that said if just 10% more of the population donated blood, we would be fine. Because right now, only about 30% of the population is eligible and only about 10% of them actually donate. And then when you compare that to how every two seconds someone in America needs blood, there’s some gaps there. 

The FDA recently relaxed a lot of eligibility requirements for people who were previously deferred for being stationed overseas in the 90s, piercings, tattoos, etc. Some people who were previously deferred for a lifetime can now donate. 

We are very appreciative of the support we have from the community, we’ve been working with a lot of the schools and churches to get some of these drives on to replace some that were cancelled.