An initial wave of blood drive cancellations and donation losses due to COVID-19 spurred many to action, and the Minnesota Region of the American Red Cross now reports that it has been able to meet the immediate patient need thanks to local donors.
However, looking ahead through April and May, the organization is encouraging healthy individuals to keep their appointments and make new ones in order to maintain blood supplies as the pandemic continues to spread. To try and keep donors, staff and volunteers safe, the Red Cross has enacted a number of additional security measures and all Minnesota drives are currently appointment-only to allow for proper social distancing.
“We’ve temporarily gone to appointment-only, just to manage the flow of donors,” explained Sue Thesenga, external communications manager for the Minnesota Region. “We want to make sure that people who are coming to the blood drive area in the entryway are also able to social distance.”
Thesenga added that volunteers are taking the temperature of everyone entering the blood drive area — including other volunteers, staff and donors. Starting this week, she added collection volunteers across Minnesota will all be wearing basic face masks.
In addition, the American Red Cross’s website says that the organization is wiping down donor-touched surfaces with disinfectant and practicing social distancing between donor beds and waiting areas. The organization is also asking anyone who has travelled to China, Iran, Italy or South Korea — or anyone who has had a COVID-19 diagnosis or known contact with the virus — to defer donating for a month.
Common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, fatigue and a dry cough. As always, the organization is only taking donations from individuals who feel healthy and well at the time of giving. Those with a temperature will be turned away.
In order to follow distancing guidelines, which require a minimum of six feet between people, Thesenga explained that the Minnesota Region will not use bloodmobiles during at least the month of April.
“It’s become impossible for us to maintain social distancing standards using those units,” added Melanie Tschida, executive director for American Red Cross Southeast Minnesota. “Our latest strategy for April is to see if the locations that were planning on hosting drives using those vehicles can instead find a site inside their building to host a more traditional drive, where we can put those safety precautions in place.”
The southeastern region oversees Le Sueur, Rice, Steele and Waseca counties. Meanwhile, the area around St. Peter and further west is overseen by American Red Cross Southwest Minnesota — based out of Mankato.
While looking for donation locations, and while trying to find replacement set-ups for bloodmobile drives, Thesenga explained that the Red Cross tends toward community spaces with large open areas. Often, these end up being schools and churches — many of which have signed on to host drives in April, despite being closed for larger worship services.
The need to make an appointment and space donors out more so than before has also meant people may need to schedule a time two to three weeks out as slots fill up. An added benefit of this, said Thesenga, is that there is always a need for blood and donations will continue to be critical throughout and beyond the pandemic.
“Now we’re in a really good spot, but we need to continue this. We’re encouraging people to schedule their appointments weeks and even months ahead,” she explained. “Blood is a perishable product — it has a shelf life of 42 days, and donors can donate blood every 56 days.”
Thesenga added that, in addition to helping car accident and other trauma victims, blood donations also frequently assist those with diseases like cancer. She noted that these patients often need regular transfusions while undergoing treatment, as certain diagnoses and procedures can prevent individuals from producing on their own.
Although a donation from southern Minnesota could go anywhere in the country, Thesenga added that local needs are always met first.
As for the risk of transmitting COVID-19 through blood, both the Red Cross and the Minnesota Department of Health say there’s no evidence that the respiratory illness would be able to be spread in this way. Public Information Officer Julie Bartkey said the agency recognizes the need for blood and encourages people to get out and donate once the executive order to stay at home is lifted.
Technically, blood drives are exempt from the policy — deemed essential actives and therefore allowed to continue even under the stay-at-home order, which runs through April 10. Still, many area drives in the first half of the month are already booked, but numerous appointment times remain in the latter half of April at locations throughout the area.