Covid-19: The fight for our blood supply

The New Zealand Blood Service has seen a 60 percent increase in cancellations amid Covid-19 fears. Helen Glenny went to donate plasma in Christchurch, where she found staff working hard to maintain the country’s blood supply.

The New Zealand Blood Service’s Christchurch Donor Centre has had a black and yellow make-over: tape stretches across the reception desk, enforcing a two metre gap between donors and staff. Booths have been cordoned off to ensure a gap between donors filling out forms. The centre has spread itself out: four donor beds have been moved to a curtained-off, makeshift donation area; a space that was ringing with music a few months’ ago during the Volunteers’ Christmas Party. And you can’t serve yourself chocolate biscuits - a gloved staff member does that for you. 

But for the most part, donating blood during Covid-19 feels the same.

Hand sanitiser is used liberally, donors are interrogated about their health, and there’s an ever-present whiff of hospital-grade disinfectant. I was there to donate plasma; a blood product that’s used to treat patients with immune deficiencies, cancer and burns, among other conditions. I was questioned thoroughly about any Covid-19 symptoms, but also asked about symptoms of malaria and West Nile virus, a rare reminder other illnesses exist. 

Aside from a skin-prick test, I didn’t come into close contact with anyone until my donor technician had to find a vein, fit a blood pressure cuff to my arm and insert a needle: “You can’t do this from two metres away,” he joked. 

The donor beds around me were mostly full, but this week the New Zealand Blood Service (NZBS) has seen a 60 percent increase in cancellations compared to the same week last year. Overseas, the same patterns are occurring. UK blood donations have dropped by 15 percent, while donations across Canada dropped by 20 percent. The American Red Cross has reported severe blood shortages as mobile blood drives are cancelled amid fears of transmission.

But NZBS is urging people to continue to donate during lockdown. Blood donation is classed as an essential service, and donor centres will remain open at alert Level 4. All donors will be met by a donor host, who will check that they are feeling well, haven’t been in contact with anyone with a confirmed or suspected case of Covid-19, and haven’t returned from overseas in the past four weeks. 

“We are carefully monitoring demand to ensure we have enough donations to meet it,” says Dr Sarah Morley, Chief Medical Officer NZBS. Although Covid-19, as a respiratory illness, shouldn’t require blood transfusions for treatment, severe cases could increase demand. “If a patient goes into intensive care, it is likely that transfusions will be required,” says Morley. 

Blood products have a short shelf life, with red blood cells lasting only 35 days in storage, so supply from donors must be constant. “There are many patients who rely on blood transfusions in their treatment, such as patients bleeding from surgery or trauma, cancer patients, and those with immunodeficiencies, so we are encouraging donors to book and donate.” Covid-19 itself poses no risk to patients receiving blood transfusions, as respiratory viruses are not known to be transmitted through blood. 

Atawhai Te Hau, a Donor Recruiter in the Christchurch centre, recognises that some people might not be comfortable donating. “People are wary of coming out. They might be living with an elderly person, and not want to take that risk.” But she advised that extra measures have been put in place to ensure the donor centres are safe. They’re asking the right questions, they’ve increased the frequency of cleaning, and ensured social distancing throughout their centres. 

Staff at the Christchurch centre were adapting quickly to the new measures, maintaining their distance as they chatted happily with regular donors. They expressed the importance of continuing with their work; there’s no alternative for patients who are in need of blood products, and blood donors, and donation staff, save lives.

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