Pandemic strains blood supply for COVID-19 and noninfected patients


The COVID-19 pandemic is putting a strain on the blood supply and could be putting people – including those who normally get transfusions, such as patients with sickle cell disease and cancer – at risk.

Dr. Ifeyinwa (Ify) Osunkwo, a sickle cell disease specialist at Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, N.C.

Dr. Ifeyinwa (Ify) Osunkwo

“Around the beginning of March, the hematology community got wind of what was going on because the blood banks were saying think about your patients and begin to restrict blood usage because we are expecting an increase in usage for COVID-positive ICU patients,” Ifeyinwa (Ify) Osunkwo, MD, a specialist in hematology and sickle cell disease at Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, N.C., said in an interview.

“I think that was the first call to arms around hematology ... you don’t want to shortchange somebody who is well and who is being sustained by life-giving transfusions and cut out their transfusion therapy because you are hoping to use the blood for people who are coming in with COVID-19,” she continued. “That is an ethical dilemma that no doctor wants to have to go through. But the reality is we have to do something to make it work for everybody.”

And the timing of the social restrictions due to the pandemic has added additional strain on the blood supply.

“Over the winter, traditionally, blood drives slow down because of the flu and different viruses,” she noted. “The spring and the summer are when we see the biggest recruitment and uptake of blood donation. COVID-19 hit [and] a lot of the blood drives that were traditionally scheduled to supply blood for the country have been canceled because of the new guidance for social distancing.”

Another big source of blood are health care professionals themselves and they may not be able to donate because of the extra hours being worked because of the pandemic.

In speaking about the needs for traditional patients such as those who are dealing with cancer or leukemia or sickle cell diseases as well as those who are being treated for COVID-19 in North Carolina, “we are not at the critical point, but I am a little bit nervous that we may get there because they are not going to up the usual blood drives anytime this summer. We project [sometime] in the fall, but maybe not even then. So there needs to be a significant call-out for people to make every effort to donate blood,” said Dr. Osunkwo. She added that in places such as New York City that are hot spots for the COVID-19 outbreak, the need is likely a lot greater.

She recalled a recent incident at a New York hospital that highlighted how those managing blood supplies are being restrictive and how this could be harming patients.

“A sickle cell patient came in with COVID-19 and the treatment recommendation was do a red blood cell exchange but the blood bank was nervous about getting enough blood to supply for that exchange transfusion,” she said, noting that the doctor still went to bat for that patient to get the needed treatment. “We gave her the supporting evidence that when you are on treatment for sickle cell disease, you tend to do better if you get COVID-19 or any other viral infection. The symptoms of COVID-19 in sickle cell disease is acute chest syndrome, for which the treatment is red blood cell exchange. Not doing that for [these patients] is really not giving them the optimal way of managing their disease, and managing their disease in the setting of COVID-19.”

To that end, Dr. Osunkwo stressed that doctors need to be doing all they can to get the word out that blood is needed and that the American Red Cross and other donation organizations are making it safe for people to donate. She has been using social media to highlight when her fellow doctors and others make donations as a way to motivate individuals.

“Everybody can do something during this pandemic,” she said. “Don’t feel like you are not working, that you are not a frontline worker, that you have nothing to contribute. You can donate blood. Your cousin can donate blood. You can tell your friends, your neighbors, your relatives, your enemies to go donate. We will take every kind of blood we can get because people are needing it more now. Even though we canceled elective surgeries, my patients when they get COVID-19, they need more blood ... than they usually do during their regular sickle cell admission. It is going to be the same for people who have other blood disorders like cancer and leukemia. We can’t stop life-saving treatments just because we have the COVID pandemic.”

Dr. Osunkwo also praised recent actions taken by the Food and Drug Administration to lessen some of the deferral periods for when an individual can donate.

The FDA on April 2 issued three sets of revised recommendations aimed at getting more people eligible to donate blood. All of the revised recommendations will remain in effect after the COVID-19 health emergency is declared over.

The first revised recommendation makes changes to December 2015 guidance.

For male blood donors who would have been deferred for having sex with another male partner, the deferral period has been reduced from 12 months to 3 months. That deferral period change also applies to female donors who had sex with a man who had sex with another man as well as for those with recent tattoos and piercings.

The second recommendation revises guidance from August 2013 and relates to the risk of transfusion-transmitted malaria.

Under the new recommendations, for those who traveled to malaria-endemic areas (and are residents of malaria non-endemic countries), the FDA is lowering the recommended deferral period from 12 months to 3 months, and also provides notices of an alternate procedure that permits donations without a deferral period provided the blood components are pathogen-reduced using an FDA-approved pathogen reduction device.

The third recommendation finalizes draft guidance from January that eliminates the referral period for donors who spent time in certain European countries or were on military bases in Europe and were previously considered to have been exposed to a potential risk of transmission of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease or Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

Dr. Osunkwo reports consultancy and being on the speakers bureau and participating in the advisory board for Novartis, and relationships with a variety of other pharmaceutical companies. She is the editor-in-chief for Hematology News.

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