After a critical dip in donations at the outset of the coronavirus lockdown last month, New Jersey’s blood supplies have replenished as collection sites adopted new safety protocols. However, health officials caution that a steady supply of donors is needed as the state continues to grapple with the ongoing health crisis.
Most of the state’s blood banks also have taken on the added task of collecting so-called convalescent plasma, which holds the promise of therapeutic treatment for COVID-19.
“The need for blood doesn’t take a break for a pandemic,” said Alana Mauger, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, which supplies hospitals throughout New Jersey. “It’s really critical that we have that stable blood supply for patients in need.”
Tens of thousands of blood drives were cancelled nationwide in mid-March as schools, churches and other facilities that normally host the drives closed and social distancing was adopted in many regions. When officials warned of a looming shortage, the public responded. “We had an amazing outpouring from community organizations and the general public,” Mauger said.
At the same time, demand for blood was down as hospitals overwhelmed with coronavirus patients cancelled elective procedures. Further, the incidence of trauma declined as fewer people were out on the roads and elsewhere after state officials urged residents to stay at home to stop the spread of the deadly virus.
In New Jersey, potential donors can go to several permanent collection sites run by blood banks. Some blood drives also have resumed.
The donation process looks a bit different in the age of coronavirus. Donors need to make an appointment before going to a blood bank; walk-ins are no longer accepted. That limits the number of people at the collection site. Donors’ temperatures are taken before they enter the collection site. Once inside, there are fewer people in a room than usual; donors must wear face coverings and are kept at a distance of at least six feet from one another. They are given hand sanitizer at each step of the process.
As always, donors are required to fill out an extensive health history questionnaire. It is now recommended that the history be completed online beforehand to limit the time spent at the collection site. Blood is not tested for coronavirus as there is no evidence that the respiratory virus is transmitted that way.
Blood collection sites were always rigorously cleaned and disinfected, but staff now goes the extra distance, wiping down all public surfaces, including door handles.
“Initially we saw a critical [blood] shortage since people didn’t want to leave their homes, but we put the message out and the public knows that we’re taking every precaution,” said Holly Yacynych, marketing manager for the Miller-Keystone Blood Center, which supplies 29 hospitals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, including those in Hunterdon, Warren and Mercer counties.
Blood banks are asking that donors schedule appointments over the next few months to ensure uninterrupted supply. Julie Daigle of Somerset already has her May appointment on the calendar; she last donated in March.
“If I can take a little time out of my day to save a life, then the answer is an unqualified ‘yes,’” said Daigle, an IT manager who is also a Red Cross volunteer. The organization’s phone app lets donors track where their blood winds up.
While the supply is now adequate, officials say donors are always needed. The Red Cross, for instance, needs to collect about 600 pints per day just to keep its supply stable in the region that includes New Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania, Mauger said.
Whole blood has a shelf life of about a month, while the freshness of its components vary: Platelets are good for about five days while plasma can last a year, according to the Red Cross. So the need is constant.
Blood banks have begun working with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to collect plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients. The hope is that their plasma contains antibodies to fight the virus and help patients who are ill with it.
“Hopefully this will be part of the solution in this [pandemic],” said Michael Davenport, regional director of Vitalant, formerly Community Blood Services, which supplies more than three dozen hospitals in northern and central New Jersey.
Blood donations can be made at any of these centers:
- American Red Cross donation centers in Princeton, Fairfield, Pennsauken and Pleasantville. Call 800-RED-CROSS.
- Miller-Keystone Blood Center in Ewing. Call 609-883-9750.
- Vitalant (formerly Community Blood Services) with locations in Paramus, Lincoln Park, Parsippany and Montvale. Call 877-25-VITAL.