The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of life in some capacity. Up until recently, one of those lesser known aspects was blood.
Blood donations have always been needed, but right now – at this very moment – the need is especially high due to the pandemic.
A joint statement issued by the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB), America’s Blood Centers and the American Red Cross regarding the nation’s blood supply status on Oct. 16 stressed a necessity for anyone who is eligible to donate.
Since the early stages of the pandemic, there have been “unprecedented fluctuations” in both the supply and need for blood.
“A variety of events – including wildfires in the western states, recent hurricanes and other storms – have led to additional disruptions to the collection of blood, compounding the impact of canceled blood drives at schools, businesses and community organizations due to remote work and closures,” the statement reads. “At the same time, the need for blood continues to increase as more hospitals throughout the country resume normal surgery schedules and more patients require blood.”
The military population is no exception. Erin Longacre, Fort Gordon Armed Services Blood Program blood donor recruiter, said the blood shortage is one of the ongoing, lesser talked about effects of the pandemic.
“A lot of the blood shortages have been caused by COVID mitigation strategies,” Longacre said.
The ASBP manages blood requests from the five major combatant commands by sending blood supplies to service members in combat environments. The program also provides blood for service members and their families at military treatment facilities around the world. Fort Gordon’s Kendrick Memorial Blood Center provides direct support to Eisenhower Army Medical Center and the ASBP with blood donations year-round.
Typically, KMBC would receive a steady flow of blood donations from service member-trainees assigned to Fort Gordon, but since the pandemic, the flow has slowed tremendously.
“A lot of the changes that have happened in their training environments as a result of COVID have resulted in a lot of cancellations of blood drives, changes in how an operation has to be done, and the number of people that we can collect blood from at any given time,” Longacre said, “and because we’re following physical distancing guidelines, making sure stations are sanitized in-between donors and all of that stuff, we have fewer coming in.”
The center has also seen a sharp decline in the number of permanent party and civilian donations due to people teleworking. As more people return to work and word spreads about the shortage, Sgt. Jeffrey Ketcham said he hopes more people will get out and donate.
“It’s a very necessary mission in spite of everything that’s going on,” Ketcham said. “Whether at the height of war or not, people are always going to need blood.”
Currently assigned to 551st Signal Battalion, Ketcham was worked at KMBC from May 2017 to December 2019, and has been a faithful blood donor for the past 23 years.
“I know firsthand it’s going to be helping one or two people down the road,” he said. “I do it because it’s an unselfish act and because there’s always going to be a need for it. As long as I’ve got it in me, I might as well share it.”
Although the ASBP’s primary mission is to take care of the military first, Longacre said there are times when it partners with its civilian counterparts.
“Because blood is such an important resource, when we have the ability to help one another out in times of emergency, we can and we do.”
Having said that, Longacre wants to make it clear that although the ASBP is in need of donors, she does not want to discourage people from considering other local centers such as Shepeard Community Blood Center, which provides blood to local hospitals for those in need.
“They have been harder hit by this pandemic than we have because a large percentage of what civilian community blood centers do is go to schools and churches, and when those places aren’t meeting at all or are at a minimum capacity, the blood drives just aren’t going to happen,” Longacre said. “We want the community to support the program here, too, but I also don’t want to discourage anyone from donating to Shepeard. We’re all in this together,” she said.
Regardless of where one donates, the donor must wait a minimum of eight weeks before being eligible to donate again – a time period that should not be confused with “donation” centers that pay donors for their plasma/blood products up to several times per month.
The biggest difference between places like KMBC or Shepeard and centers that pay, in addition to the time in-between donations, is where the blood goes.
“We are actively transfusing those units of blood into people, and most of the time, paid [collection] centers are using plasma to make things out of – whether it be vaccines or testing re- agents or other byproducts of the plasma,” Longacre explained. “That’s why they’re allowed to pay for it – because it’s not being transfused – and some of the blood goes back into you.”
KMBC is located in Building BDC 001 on 48 Central Hospital Court. Prospective donors should call ahead to make sure someone is at the center since its staff travels. To make an appointment, call 706-787- 3234/1012.
“We’re going to continue to struggle with the pandemic for the foreseeable future,” Longacre said. “This is something people can do to continue to help their community through it.”
Changes to donor restrictions
As part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s ongoing commitment to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, and after the completion of several studies, the agency revised some restrictions that were previously in place. One of the most noteworthy recent changes for the military community is that anyone who has traveled to Europe (with the exception of the U.K.), regardless of date, may now be eligible to donate. Also, for those with recent tattoos and piercings, the recommended deferral period changed from 12 months to three months. Visit www.fda.gov for a complete list and explanation of changes.