Rebecca Hirsh, MD, first donated blood in a high school gym at a blood drive she organized as a teenager. As an oncologist, Hirsh, director of inpatient oncology services at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) and an associate professor of Hematology/Oncology at the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM), continues to donate blood because she sees the direct impact it has in treating and saving her patients. And now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, she is more aware of the need than ever.
“In this current crisis I, like many people and many of my colleagues, wanted to donate as soon as we realized the impact social distancing is having on the blood supply,” Hirsh said.
According to the American Red Cross, more than 13,000 blood drives have been canceled since states began enacting “stay home” measures due to COVID-19. Many sites that normally host drives — churches, community centers, schools — have been closed because leaders were initially not aware that blood drives are considered “essential.” In early March, Don Siegel, MD, PhD, director of the division of Transfusion Medicine and Therapeutic Pathology at HUP and a professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at PSOM, received an email from the chief medicine officer of the Red Cross instructing him to prepare for a shortage. To take stock and make existing supplies last longer, Siegel and his HUP blood bank team completed a review and put into place revised blood ordering guidelines for clinicians to follow.. Then, Siegel decided to organize a series of blood drives at HUP’s Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine.
“We made the announcement about the first three blood drives to Penn Medicine employees on March 20, and by March 21 all 200 of the appointment slots were full,” Siegel said. “We realized that if within a few hours all these appointments were gone, we should set up more drives.
Penn Medicine employees like Hirsh make up the bulk of donors.
“I think it's important and it's an easy, tangible thing to do to help people. We are all devastated by the scarcity of resources, we've never practiced in environments where we were concerned about the supply of tools we need to take care of patients and keep providers safe — donating blood was once again a very easy way to make a small difference,” Hirsh said. “I always tell my patients that if their friends and families want to do something to help they can donate blood — they will literally save lives.”
The Red Cross has instituted new guidelines to ensure the safety of donors and site hosts in light of COVID-19. For those hosting a blood drive, the only responsibility is unlocking the doors. For donors, there are a number of measures in place to protect their health throughout the process. According to Alana Mauger, who works with the Red Cross in Central and Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, “each Red Cross blood drive and donation center follows the highest standards of safety and infection control.”
To ensure the health of employees, volunteers and staff, precautions include:
Checking temperatures of staff and donors before entering a drive to make sure they are healthy.
Providing hand sanitizer for use before the drive, as well as throughout the donation process.
Following social distancing between donors including entry, donation and refreshment areas.
Routinely disinfecting surfaces, equipment and donor-touched areas.
Wearing gloves, and changing gloves often.
Using sterile collection sets and an aseptic scrub for every donation.
Staff wearing basic face masks.
“When Penn started hosting drives we were in a massive shortage, and without these emergency blood drives that would be the case again,” Mauger said. “It’s really heartwarming to see how people have stepped up to offer these sites to us, and the outpouring of support from donors.”
Three blood drives are currently scheduled at the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine in April. For more information or to sign up to donate, visit the Red Cross website.
In the coming months, the Red Cross is seeking stable locations to continuously hold drives as traditional sponsoring organizations are closed. Organizations can register online as a possible site source at https://rcblood.org/host.
Qun-bin Xiong, MD, clinical flow symmetry specialist in the Flow Cytometry Lab at Penn, experienced the COVID-19 outbreak in China through the eyes of family members living there. That knowledge led him to act now to try to make a difference in the United States.
“The coronavirus pandemic in China, and what my family there went through, is still very fresh in my memory. I know what America is up against,” he said. “I just feel that I have to do something, and giving blood is one big way that I can help.”