By Susan Drumheller
In March, as COVID-19 began taking its toll on the United States, fears of contracting the virus kept the usual donors away from blood centers and blood drives.
Vitalant, the parent company of what was formerly known as Inland Northwest Blood Center, announced that more than 2,000 blood drives had been canceled across the U.S., as schools and other facilities closed down to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“We had at least 25% cancellations almost overnight in March,” said Tesia Hummer, Vitalant spokeswoman in Spokane. “It was really scary.”
Many people who had previously made appointments either canceled or were no-shows, as they heeded public health advice to stay home.
In addition, the blood center had to alter its practices to maintain social distancing between donors. Fewer donations can be made at a time, essentially slowing the flow of blood at the remaining community blood drives and Vitalant facilities.
Now, “we have to keep our blood drives at capacity to maintain our blood supply,” Hummer said. Blood only keeps for 42 days, so a constant stream of donations is necessary. While blood may not be necessary for COVID-19 patients, it’s still needed for the wide range of other medical procedures.
When the news broke about the potential shortfall in the nation’s blood supply, locals responded, filling up the available short-term appointments. But the need for new donors hasn’t gone away. The surgeon general, Federal Emergency Management Agency and even Anheuser-Busch have urged people to continue giving blood — the beer company is making hand sanitizer for the Red Cross.
“It was the Band-Aid; it fixed this moment,” Hummer said last month. “But in a couple weeks more, we are not sure that blood donation will be as much of a priority.”
As older, regular donors who may be at high risk for the virus stay home and schools remain closed — 35% of Vitalant’s donor base is students — the blood center will need to continue to recruit new donors. Lingering uncertainty regarding the transmission of the COVID-19 virus doesn’t help with recruitment.
Here’s what Vitalant is doing to protect donors and their own staff during blood donations:
• Decreased the number of people giving blood at a time in order to maintain social distancing. The Bloodmobile, for instance, now can accommodate only two or three donors at a time;
• Created more space in waiting areas between donors. People can also wait in their vehicles until their appointment;
• An extra temperature check is taken when donors check in as a screen for potential carriers of COVID-19. Vitalant staff members are also required to take their temperature twice a day and anyone with an elevated temperature — or any symptoms — will be sent home;
• All donor chairs and high-touch areas are wiped with disinfectant after every donor, or every 15 minutes, and blankets are not reused until laundered;
• Snacks are prepackaged, (“No donuts or cookies are sitting out anymore,” Hummer said) and handed out by staff;
• Staff members are wearing gloves and washing hands frequently.
Initially, staff was not required to wear masks. Hummer said that was based on the recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vitalant’s chief medical officer and other expert sources. Also influencing the policy is the shortage of medical-grade masks, and both the staff and donors are presumed to be healthy.
However, the CDC later changed its recommendations for the general public, advising people to wear non-medical cloth masks in public because of the possible transmission of the virus through the air by people who may display no symptoms. Vitalant followed suit and now is requiring staff to wear masks.
Healthy people can sign up at vitalant.org for an appointment in the Sandpoint area. The next opportunity is Wednesday, May 27. Donors can also make an appointment most days at the North Idaho Donation Center in Coeur d’Alene.
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