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COURTESY AMERICAN RED CROSS

by Andrew Garda
garda@montclairlocal.news

With the rapid expansion of the COVID-19 virus, it is more critical than ever for blood banks to be able to provide blood.

However, with states such as New Jersey ordering residents to stay in their homes and businesses and schools where drives are held now closed, organizations such as the Red Cross and New York Blood Center are struggling to fill the needs they are faced with.

As of this past weekend, the Red Cross canceled more than 6,000 blood drives across the country, resulting in the loss of over 200,000 units of blood. The New York Blood Center has canceled more than 600 blood drives, with the NYBC losing over 20,000 individual donations.

It’s difficult to make up those losses, especially with limitations on where drives might be held right now, said Andrea Cefarelli, Senior Executive Director Donor Recruitment & Marketing for the New York Blood Center.

“We collect 75 percent of our blood traditionally at blood drives [held at] high schools, colleges, firehouses, businesses, you name it,” said Cefarelli. “And they are cancelled in March, all of April and into May. We don’t know if we’ll be back up and running. So, we’re just running donor centers, which used to be just 25 percent of our total collections.”

The Red Cross is dealing with much the same issue, said Matthew Teter, Chief External Relations Officer at American Red Cross in New Jersey.

“We have thousands of blood drives everyday at the American Red Cross throughout the country,” Teter said. “Many of those are at educational institutions, many are at corporate partners, corporations that host blood drives, the time for their employees. And government buildings and other nonprofit organizations open the doors to blood drives. Most of those places are now closed.”

In fact, many of those places closed even before Murphy’s Executive Order on Saturday, as companies tried to get their employees home and working remotely to help stem the rising tide of COVID-19 cases. 

“So that created a huge gap in our site locations,” Teter said. “Then we had to start the process of circling back with our sponsors and reaching out to new site sponsors to say blood drives are essential, blood donors are essential, and we had to start opening those sites back up.”

“Essential” is the key word on everybody’s mind, as potential donors have been concerned that they may not be able to travel to donate.

“We’re encouraging people to get out and donate because there is some confusion,” Teter said. “You know when there’s a stay-at-home order that’s mandatory by the state. [People wonder] ‘Am I allowed to go out and donate blood?’ The answer is yes, you can go out and donate blood.”

Traditionally, New Jersey locations for both the New York Blood Center and the Red Cross were happy to take walk-ins, but with the current health crises, that’s untenable. Instead, both organizations want you to sign-up for an appointment ahead of time, as either www.nybc.org or calling calling 1-800-933-2566 for the New York Blood Center or through www.redcrossblood.org, call (800) 733-2767 or use their Blood Donor App for the Red Cross.

Teter said that systems have been overloaded since the COVID-19 crises began, so sometimes it takes a while to complete the appointment process, but he urges potential donors to stick with it, as they are desperate for blood. Teter said that it is crucial people make appointments, as sites can change. 

COURTESY NEW YORK BLOOD CENTER

Those appointments are necessary in order for the organizations to limit the amount of people in a facility at a time, which is just one of the ways they are working to keep their donors safe.

“We are pre-screening both our staff…taking their temperature stuff before they report to work, and donors before they start the donation process,” Cefarelli said. “We are cleaning our beds between every donor.”

Along with any of the usual restrictions, a release from the NYBC they people should “avoid donor centers if they are experiencing a fever or other symptoms of COVID-19 (cough, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing), have had close contact with someone diagnosed with or suspected of having COVID-19 in the last 14 days, or been diagnosed with or suspected of having COVID-19 until 28 days after their illness has resolved.”

When you arrive at your site for the appointment, the Red Cross is also following all Center for Disease Control guidelines for operating a donation site during the COVID-19 crises.  

Carole Foran of Port Murray, NJ gave blood over the weekend and said she had no concerns going in.

“I had no care or concerns going in. I was not worried that my health is going to be compromised in any way,” she said on a phone call Tuesday. “Everybody’s following the protocol there. Quite obviously you get your temperature taken before you even get into the room to donate, and then you go in there and do your little registration process.”

Foran used the Red Cross app ahead of time, so she had already filled out her documentation before she arrived. After a dousing of hand sanitizer, Foran moved to the next station where she had her temperature taken again, answered a few questions from a gloved and masked attendant, before being given gloves to use when signing your release on a portable screen.

“I could see them wiping down the tables between donations, so that was reassuring as well,” she said.

Foran said with the exception of the attendants who needed to draw blood, social distancing was definitely the word of  the day, with beds and equipment stations at least the requisite six feet apart. 

“I wasn’t worried at all about my health and I’m fine,” Foran said. 

She said as soon as she heard about the dwindling donations, she wanted to help.

“I know it’s urgent, that’s the word we heard,” she said. “An urgent need for blood. So that’s kind of scary [because] I want anybody who is sick or has an accident, who needs transfusion, whether it’s my family or somebody else’s family, I want the blood to be there for them.”

If someone isn’t able to give blood, both Teter and Cefarelli said there are other ways to help. Volunteering is on hold for the most part now, but will be an option again at some point, and monetary donations can help as well.

At the end of the day, though, what is most in need are blood donations.

“We have to get back into ensuring that we have a constant supply of blood for those people who so desperately need it,” Teter said.

Foran said that while she understands the hesitation some people have, they should feel comfortable donating.

“If I can encourage one or two people to give then I’m even happier. It’s such a simple thing to do that can help somebody, and in the end you’re going to end up feeling better for having done it.”