COVID-19 cancelled more than a year of school-based blood drives, while the return of pandemic-postponed medical procedures is driving up demand for blood. 

Jeanmarie Evelly

A blood drive in Brooklyn.

With 70 percent its residents now vaccinated, New York City is beginning to regain a sense of normalcy. But the effects of the pandemic are still creating issues in healthcare settings — especially the blood bank.

The city’s supply of blood donations has dipped to some of its lowest levels on record multiple times since March 2020, according to Andrea Cefarelli, executive director of the New York Blood Center. The shortage has continued 16 months later, even after the Food and Drug Administration updated its recommendations to allow for certain categories of potential donors—including men who have had sex with men—to donate sooner.

Earlier this month, the blood bank was down to just a three-day supply overall, and a one-day supply of the universal Type O and Type O positive blood. A social media and email campaign helped to move the needle a bit, Cefarelli said, but the supply remains lower than the five- to seven-day supply she says is ideal. 

Read our coverage of New York City’s Coronavirus crisis.

The reason for the shortage is two-fold, she explained. Hundreds of school and college drives were canceled during the end of the 2019-2020 and most of the 2020-2021 academic years, events that would normally account for about a fourth of the bank’s supply. Community-based drives, such as in churches, are still ongoing, but have been reduced from about 550 a month pre-pandemic to about 350 a month. 

Although donor centers remain open and accepting donations, it is more difficult to entice individuals when they have to go out of their way to donate. “It’s much easier to give blood coming out of chemistry class with 10 of your friends in the school gym than finding a donor center that you’ve never been to,” Cefarelli said.

The second factor is that the approximately 200 hospitals receiving blood from the bank are beginning to schedule a backlog of elective surgeries or treatments that were delayed during the pandemic. “We are distributing more blood than we did pre-pandemic, and that is challenging,” she said.

The issue is compounded by the fact that blood banks around the country are facing similar shortages. On June 14, which marked Blood Donation Day, the Red Cross announced a severe blood shortage due to the same factors Cefarelli said are delaying donations in New York City.

“The blood shortage this summer is primarily driven by the increase in the demand for blood from hospitals as the number of trauma cases, elective surgeries and organ transplants rise,” said Desiree Ramos Reiner, spokesperson for the Red Cross.

A national shortage is troubling to regional directors like Cefarelli, who would typically use these centers to supplement when the city’s own supply runs thin.

“The difference pre-pandemic is if we got really low, there was almost a guarantee that another not-for-profit blood center in the country had blood that they could share with us,” she said.

FDA updates eligibility recommendations

Last April, in response to the cancellation of drives around the country, the Food and Drug Administration made several changes to its eligibility requirements for donors as a way to increase donations. These changes, the FDA says, are based on completed studies and epidemiological data, and would not compromise the safety of the blood supply.

Prior to the update, people who fell into the following categories were not able to donate: Men who have had sex with another man in the last 12 months, women who have had sex with a man who has had sex with another man in the last 12 months, and those who got a piercing or tattoo in the last 12 months.

Now the waiting period—which the FDA says is in place to reduce the risk of HIV transmission, but which some lawmakers and advocates want to repeal entirely—is three months for all three categories. (Exception: The New York Blood Center allows individuals who were tattooed at a licensed New Jersey parlor to donate blood immediately.)

The waiting period was also reduced for people who are from or traveled to areas where malaria is a risk. Eligibility criteria aimed to reduce the risk of Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (a disease similar to Mad Cow that affects humans) was also loosened.

In general, healthy individuals who weigh at least 110 pounds and are at least 17 years old, or 16 with written permission from a guardian, are eligible to donate. The full list of eligibility requirements for the New York Blood Center, along with permission slips in English and Spanish, are available on the center’s website.

Cefarelli notes that anyone who receives the COVID-19 vaccine is eligible to donate blood right away, as long as no symptoms are present. “If you are one of those who got their second [shot] and have fevers and chills,” she said, “once that’s over and you have no issues, you can donate immediately.”

She anticipates the long Fourth of July weekend to cause a further dip in the supply. Along with the Christmas holidays, summer is regularly the most challenging time to attract donations, she said.

Last December, outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office addressed the ongoing shortage by offering a raffle to donors with prizes ranging from a year’s supply of Krispy Kreme donuts to New York Jets’ tickets. The city is offering no such promotion at this time, but has tweeted about the shortage and is encouraging New Yorkers to consider donating.

Once a donation is received, it is tested and processed by a lab and added to the bank in less than two days, so the effects of increased donations can have an almost immediate effect, Cefarelli says.

“We need a sustained response from donors,” she added, “until we get to October when—fingers-crossed—the schools will welcome us back.”

Liz Donovan is a Report for America corps member.