January is National Blood Donor Month and it’s more important now than ever to give blood during the time of COVID-19 and the resulting high rates of hospitalization across the country, according to officials with the American Red Cross.

The American Red Cross asks those who have recovered from the COVID-19 virus to help current COVID-19 patients with whole blood donations since phlebotomists are now able to extract convalescent plasma and red blood cells.

“Convalescent plasma is a term for when a donor’s plasma is used for a therapy for ill patients,” said Biomedical Communications Manager Alana Mauger. “People who are in the hospital with COVID-19, who are usually in the ICU, can get a transfusion of plasma from a donor that has the COVID-19 antibodies.”

The antibodies within the plasma have the potential to help those critically ill with COVID-19 to form their own antibodies and can help them fight off the virus.

Although the blood product can save lives, it is important to note that the plasma is not a vaccine or prevention and can only be used as a treatment for those already infected with COVID-19.

The need for convalescent plasma increases as the country sees over 214,000 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 each day, according to data from the American Red Cross.

In order to combat the rate of plasma shortage, the Red Cross began collecting these antibodies back in June 2020, and found that some of those who tested positive for having the antibodies were asymptomatic when they had COVID-19 and therefore were never aware that they had been infected.

Phlebotomists have been collecting the plasma at Red Cross donation centers which aren’t located in areas like north central Pennsylvania and upstate New York.

“We are now able to extract that plasma from a whole blood donation,” Mauger said.

Those who come in for donations are asked to wear masks/face coverings and officials take their temperatures before entering the blood drive facilities. Shared surfaces are disinfected after every donor and interactions between donors and phlebotomists are limited while maintaining social distancing to keep everyone as safe as possible.

Putting COVID-19 safety precautions aside, Mauger said that the blood donation process itself is unchanged. Donors give blood like normal, and then their blood gets tested for the antibodies.

If the blood tests positive for containing the antibodies, it is then broken down into different components including the red blood cells and convalescent plasma.

The plasma is then able to be used on a COVID-19 patient and the red blood cells are able to be used on a patient(s) for other purposes.

Mauger said that while the Red Cross has a stable blood supply at the moment – they need to collect 128 pints of blood in the northeastern region of Pennsylvania daily – the national shortage specifically concerns the convalescent plasma which is not found in the blood of all those who have recovered from COVID-19.

“We can only take convalescent plasma from people who have been infected by COVID-19, have fully recovered, and have the antibodies, and that’s not a large population of people in the grand scheme of things” Mauger said.

Eligible convalescent plasma donors can give to the Red Cross every week for up to three months. Donors must be in good health and have a verified past diagnosis of COVID-19, granted that they are now fully recovered and symptom-free and have been symptom-free for at least 14 days.

“It’s really not going to do anything to stop the spread,” Mauger said. “This is really all about a therapeutic treatment for patients who are already critically ill with COVID-19, and for those patients, it could be very important. It could be the treatment that helps them on their way to recovery.”

“In general, donating blood, even for people who haven’t had COVID-19 and don’t have these antibodies, is still really important,” she added. “Patients need it everyday for all kinds of things. We think about the traumas and the accidents and things like that, but blood products are often a regular part of ongoing cancer treatments for patients. Those blood products help them battle things like cancer, so it’s really important that we have all kinds of blood products and blood supply available, and right now we’re seeing a shortage of this convalescent plasma.”

Donors are asked to register their appointments on the Red Cross website by entering their area code and choosing a time at one of the available locations. Setting up an appointment in advance is required so staff can maintain social distancing with themselves and the public.

Upcoming blood donation opportunities:

  • Chemung Christian Fellowship at 726 Main Street, Chemung – today from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Waverly United Methodist Church at 158 Chemung Street, Waverly – Friday from 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
  • Sayre Theatre at 205 S. Elmer Ave, Sayre – next Thursday, Jan. 21 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.
  • St John Lutheran Church at 207 South Hopkins Street, Sayre – Feb. 8 from noon to 5 p.m. and Feb. 9 from 8:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Additional information on the convalescent plasma shortage and giving to the Red Cross can be found at https://www.redcross.org/.

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