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Drop in blood donations amid coronavirus fears

A nurse at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles took blood during a blood drive held in a blood mobile on Thursday.
A nurse at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles took blood during a blood drive held in a blood mobile on Thursday.Mario Tama/Getty

Amid concerns about the fast-spreading coronavirus, hospitals are still seeing patients with other serious problems who urgently need blood: cancer patients with low platelet counts; people who have suffered traumatic injuries; surgical patients being wheeled into operating rooms.

But with schools and colleges sending students home, and offices sitting empty, the Red Cross and local hospitals have seen a dramatic drop in the number of blood drives they rely on to keep blood banks well supplied. With an eye toward Seattle, which was hit by the coronavirus before Boston, and where hospitals are seeing their blood supplies running low, medical professionals are urging eligible donors to step forward.

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“We all know that this is an emergency that isn’t going away,” said Kelly Isenor, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Massachusetts.

The Red Cross is looking for donors, and for spaces they can disinfect and hold drives in, with donors spaced at least six feet away from one another.

As of Wednesday evening, 158 Red Cross blood drives in Massachusetts had been canceled because of coronavirus concerns, Isenor said. That means roughly 4,190 expected blood donations were not collected. As of Tuesday, almost 2,700 Red Cross blood drives nationwide had been canceled, meaning the organization was unable to collect anticipated 86,000 blood donations.

“That number, unfortunately, is expected to rise,” Isenor said. “A blood shortage on top of the coronavirus – that’s a public health crisis in itself."

There’s no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19, which is a respiratory illness, can be spread through blood transfusions, said Dr. Robert Makar, associate director of the blood transfusion service at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Still, health care professionals are taking precautions to keep donors and patients safe. At Massachusetts General Hospital, where an in-house donation center typical supplies about 40 percent of the blood the hospital’s patients need, employees have been especially careful to disinfect any surface donors might touch, like pens and clipboards.

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Like Red Cross volunteers, they are taking donors’s temperatures when they come in, and asking about travel in the preceding 28 days and contact with people who may have the virus.

“As a community of transfusion medicine physicians, we all agree and respect the need for people to stay at home and to be physically distant,” Makar said. “But we know that there will be patients in the coming weeks and months where blood transfusions will be needed.”

As of Thursday, Makar said the hospital had enough in its blood inventory.

“We are not being forced yet to make difficult decisions about, or to change the clinical criteria for, red cell or platelet transfusion,” he said.

But Makar said the situation in Seattle is concerning; blood shortages could become a nationwide problem — a problem healthy donors can help mitigate.

“We’re trying to blunt the impact on the regional inventory,” he said.

Makar emphasized that hospitals are hoping to avoid a sudden influx of donations followed by a long lull, as sometimes happens after large-scale tragedies or natural disasters. Instead, they need a steady stream of donors over the coming weeks and months. Blood donations have a shelf life — 42 days for red blood cells, 5 days for platelets kept at room temperature. Plasma can be frozen last up to one year.

At Boston Medical Center, Dr. Reggie R. Thomasson, medical director of the hospital’s blood bank and transfusion medicine service, is already developing contingency plans in case supplies run low. With the hospital’s clinical teams, the transfusion service is ready to evaluate patients’s needs, manage blood supplies effectively, and consider alternatives like medication where appropriate.

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“We are doing what we can to address the unknown, but we don’t know how this thing will play out," Thomasson said. "We have to make sure that patients that need the blood have it. We can’t do it alone, and we are certainly depending on inventory and reserves.”

Boston Medical Center does not have its own donation center and depends on organizations like the Red Cross for blood donations.

“If you are healthy and you are able to donate, I think it would be pertinent to donate at this point," Thomasson said.

Casey McQuillan, who is 24 and grew up in Westwood, said he received about 87 units of platelets and 104 units of blood over the nine months he spent in treatment for leukemia in 2015, through two stem cell transplants, two heart attacks, and eight rounds of chemotherapy.

McQuillan is doing better now. He graduated from Amherst College, moved to New York, and has raised almost $40,000 for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. In May, he’ll mark 4 years of being cancer-free.

“Those donations – I know you don’t see a face to them all the time," he said. "But I would love to be a face to those people.”

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To make an appointment at a local Red Cross blood drive, go to redcrossblood.org/give or call 1-800-RED-CROSS. To make an appointment at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Blood Donor Center, go to massgeneral.org/blood-donor or email MGHBloodDonorCenter@partners.org. To make an appointment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Kraft Family Blood Donor Center, call 617-632-3206 or email blooddonor@partners.org.


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.