Nancy Wartik

As the coronavirus spread across the country, the nation’s blood supply faced a dire shortage. Blood drives were canceled when businesses closed, and many people feared going into donation centers.

Now, as hospitals resume elective surgeries and some Americans once again venture out of their homes, the rate of blood donations has yet to bounce back to previous levels.

Chris Hrouda, president of biomedical services for the American Red Cross, which collects about 40 percent of the country’s blood donations, calls it a “staggering” drop in supply.

“Our inventories have been cut in half,” Mr. Hrouda said. “We’re starting to get into a critical situation.”

As an incentive, starting June 15 and for at least several months thereafter, anyone donating blood, platelets or plasma will be tested for Covid-19 antibodies, to see if they’ve had the virus. (To be clear, this is a test for antibodies, not coronavirus itself.)

Here’s what you need to know about donating in a time of crisis.

Talk to your local center about eligibility guidelines. In most states you have to be 17 years old and above; with parental consent, some states allow donors to be 16. You must weigh at least 110 pounds. There are no standing upper age limits.

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Dr. Claudia Cohn, director of the Blood Bank Laboratory at the University of Minnesota and chief medical officer of A.A.B.B., said in an interview earlier this year that normally, older Americans are the country’s best donors.

“They give a disproportionate amount of blood,” Dr. Cohn said. “Even though we think their risk is very low, we want to protect them if they want to be careful about going out.”

That means centers are asking younger people to step up and donate more than they usually do.

“This is not a blood-borne disease, that is clear,” Dr. Cohn said. “Blood itself is safe.” Coronaviruses in general don’t seem to be blood transmissible, as evidence from earlier outbreaks of SARS and MERS has shown.

“We completely understand people are hesitant,” said Dr. Pampee Young, chief medical officer of biomedical services at the American Red Cross, earlier this year. “We want to reassure the public that we’re handling this with an abundance of caution.”

  • Updated June 12, 2020

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      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

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      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

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      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

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Red Cross blood centers have ramped up ordinary procedures, with staff members masked, gloved and conducting extra temperature checks, on both themselves and donors. All surfaces are repeatedly wiped down and donors are spaced six feet apart.

“With centers taking extra measures to eliminate risk, it’s safer than going to the store,” Dr. Cohn said.

Yes.

“The recommendations are to shelter in place except for essential things,” said Dr. Young. “Public health officials recognize that blood donation is essential and they’ve made an exception for it.”

Yes, with some caveats.

Your donation might actually be extra-valuable. So-called convalescent plasma — drawn from donors who’ve recovered from the disease — contains viral antibodies.

“Antibody therapy holds promise for the treatment of current Covid-19 patients and it’s being tested now,” said Eduardo Nunes, a spokesman with the A.A.B.B. “Most centers prefer you to have been symptom-free for 28 days before donating.”

You must meet certain other qualifications; for more information see the COVIDPlasma.org website.

Christopher Flavelle contributed reporting.



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