More community blood drives are closing—which means the need for donations is growing.

By Claire Gillespie
April 06, 2020
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With stay-at-home orders in place for most of the US, no industry or sector is immune from the impact of COVID-19—and some consequences are potentially more serious than others. On March 17, the American Red Cross reported that the country is facing a severe blood shortage, following an unprecedented number of blood drive cancellations. Up to that point, nearly 2,700 Red Cross blood drives had been canceled, resulting in about 86,000 fewer blood donations. 

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Yet it’s crucial that people continue to donate blood—especially right now—Kimberly Sanford, MD, President-Elect of the American Society for Clinical Pathology and director of transfusion medicine at VCU Health, tells Health. "The large drives that have been canceled by companies, universities, and high schools typically support our blood supply and this has resulted in decreased blood components available for the hospitals,” says Dr. Sanford. “The issuing of more shelter-in-place orders continues to reduce the donors we need to support our national blood supply.” 

The American Red Cross and the US Food and Drug Administration also voiced concern for the decreasing blood supply due to COVID-19: "We need people to start turning out in force to give blood," Peter Marks, MD, PhD, director of the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research said, per the American Red Cross's website. US Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, MPH, also highlighted the need for blood donations on the organization's website. "You can still go out and give blood. We're worried about blood shortages in the future. Social distancing does not have to mean social disengagement," he said.

Luckily, there are still ways to donate blood during the coronavirus pandemic—L.A. Care Health Plan, the largest publicly-operated health plan in the U.S., decided to go ahead with its previously planned blood drive in late March. “Blood donation is always important to help save lives—the need does not go away during a pandemic, Richard Seidman, MD, L.A. Care’s chief medical officer, tells Health. 

Here’s what you need to know about donating blood right now—like who can donate, and where you can give back—as the world deals with COVID-19.

Do you have to be tested for COVID-19 before you can donate blood?

There’s no requirement to be tested for COVID-19 if you donate blood during the pandemic, says Dr. Sanford. However, the screening tests ask if you are well or if you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. If you are unwell, have an elevated temperature or have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, then you shouldn’t donate blood at that point. 

Are there any risks to donating blood during the coronavirus pandemic? 

Blood collection agencies have taken several steps to ensure both employees and donors are safe during the donation process. “All employees involved in blood collection are self-monitoring their temperatures daily,” says Dr. Sanford. “Agencies have increased the distance between donors to ensure the required 6-foot distance is complied with. Some blood collection agencies are also requiring their employees to wear marks during the process, since it requires close contact.”

Strict safety protocols were followed at the American Red Cross blood drive at L.A. Care Health Plan in late March, says Dr. Seidman. “In addition to their normal use of gloves and wiping down areas touched by donors, all equipment underwent enhanced disinfecting. The blood drive was held in a large conference room, and only five donors were allowed in at any given time, ensuring plenty of space to accommodate the six foot guidelines. Staff also checked the temperature of everyone coming in to donate to protect against any possibility that someone might be infected and pass the virus on to others.” 

Do you need to know your blood type to donate blood? 

Nope. In fact, Dr. Seidman says if you want to know how to figure out your blood type, donate through an organization like the American Red Cross and you’ll receive a blood donor card (with your blood type) in the mail. 

Can you donate blood with a cold? 

Only healthy people should donate blood, Dr. Seidman says. The American Red Cross will accept a donation 24 hours after cold symptoms have passed. If you have a fever or a cough that’s bringing up phlegm, do not feel well on the day of donation, you shouldn’t donate blood.

How old do you have to be to donate blood? 

The lower age limit to donate blood is 17, per the American Red Cross. However, some states, such as California, let 16-year-olds donate blood provided they have parental consent. There’s no upper age limit for blood donation if you are healthy “with no restrictions or limitations to your activities.” 

How much do you need to weigh to donate blood? 

If you want to donate blood, you must weigh at least 110 pounds. 

Where can you donate blood? 

To find a blood drive near you, visit the American Red Cross website—all you have to do is enter your zip code. 

How often can you donate blood? 

You can donate whole blood every 56 days. Platelets donations can take place every seven days, but not more than 24 times in a year.

Can you donate blood while pregnant or breastfeeding? 

Expectant moms can’t donate blood, and need to wait until six weeks postpartum. However, there are no restrictions on breastfeeding moms donating blood. 

Can gay men and lesbians donate blood? 

There are no restrictions on blood donation for women who have sex with women. 

Previously, men who have sex with men were eligible to donate blood (subject to all other eligibility criteria) only if they had not had sex with another man in at least 12 months. However, in light for the urgent need for blood during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reduced the 12-month referral period to three months. 

In a statement released April 2, the FDA said the change is based on recent studies and epidemiological data and is expected to remain in place after the pandemic ends. 

Can you donate blood if you have tattoos? 

The FDA has also relaxed rules regarding tattoos and piercings to help boost the nation’s blood supply. Previously, if your tattoo was applied in a state that does not regulate tattoo facilities (District of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wyoming), you had to wait 12 months before donating blood. However, the change to this rule means the waiting period is now three months. 

The American Red Cross says a tattoo is acceptable if the tattoo was applied by a state-regulated entity using sterile needles and ink that is not reused. 

Can you donate blood if you take medication? 

The American Red Cross says that in almost all cases, taking medication isn’t a barrier to blood donation, as long as the condition you’re taking the medication for is under control and you are otherwise healthy. However, there are some exceptions. 

For instance, you shouldn’t donate blood if you’re taking a “blood thinner” medication, such as Atrixa (fondaparinux), Coumadin (warfarin) or Eliquis (apixaban). 

If you’re taking antibiotics for sinus, throat or lung infection, wait until you have completed the treatment before donating blood. 

Other medications have “waiting periods,” such as the immunosuppressant Cellcept (mycophenolate mofetil). If you are taking this medication, you have to wait until six weeks after your last dose to donate blood. 

Can you donate blood with diabetes?

As long as your blood glucose levels are under control, you have no active complications from diabetes (such as eye, blood vessel or kidney problems) and you’re otherwise healthy, there’s nothing stopping you donating blood. However, some patients that have used bovine-derived insulin in the past may not be eligible.

Can a person with herpes donate blood? 

Yes, but some antiviral medications, such as acyclovir, valacyclovir and famciclovir, may require patients to wait 48 hours after their last dose before donating blood.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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