Review: Blood Supplies During the COVID-19 Pandemic

When I first thought of writing a blog on blood supplies amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it was early March. Fast forward a couple months and a lot of things have changed. So, where were we, and where are we now?

January 6, 2020

At this time, most people in the US were not even aware of the novel coronavirus. (unless you were taking my Introduction to Human Disease course and were searching online for media articles about infectious disease!)

I first became aware of this ‘mystery’ virus in early January, when I was teaching an online Winter session course called Introduction to Human Disease. I developed this course a number of years ago as a STEM course for non-science majors. The intent of the course is to familiarize students with diseases and disease terminology that they will use in their everyday lives. The course gives students a chance to learn basic medical concepts that will enable them to become their own (or their family’s) medical advocate. In addition, the course covers many diseases that are ‘in the news’ and allows students to gain some knowledge and insight into the myths and facts surrounding these diseases. Topics covered include general mechanisms of disease, including inflammation, infectious disease, immunity, heredity, and cancer. Emphasis is placed on emerging and pandemic …. so, when this disease emerged, we were right there to take note!

I asked the students to find an article in the media on an infectious disease, and to summarize and answer questions about the article and the mechanism of the disease. Three students chose different articles about this yet unnamed mystery illness affecting people in Wuhan, China. We had active discussion board conversations about this emerging severe respiratory disease and pneumonia, that at the time had infected around 40 people, with no reported deaths, and no human to human transmission. In my comments, I compared this novel virus to seasonal influenza, H1N1, SARS and MERS and tried to reassure students that this would hopefully follow the same path as H1N1 or SARS and MERS.

Feb 21, 2020

The first confirmed case in the United States was on Jan 21 in Washington state. (CDC)1 On Jan 31, the Health and Human Services Secretary declared Coronavirus a Public Health Emergency in the US. (HHS.gov)2 We began hearing news of restrictions on flights from China, passengers affected on Princess Cruise ships and outbreaks at a long term care facility in Washington State. 

As a Medical laboratory Scientist, I became concerned with this virus early on, and started watching statistics. I was concerned not only for the health of my family, friends and coworkers, but also for the health or our laboratories and our blood supply.

The first journal articles I read about COVID-19 and blood safety were published in Transfusion Medicine Reviews on Feb 21, 2020. In the very early days of this novel coronavirus, researchers in China reviewed publications about SARS and MERS to help give us a better understanding of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes our current pandemic of COVID-19. When discussing blood safety, one of the first things to consider is if the virus is transmittable via blood transfusions. If the virus is transmittable, we also must consider if there is an asymptomatic time when there is virus in the blood. One review stated that SARS, MERS and SARS-CoV-2 can all be found in the serum or plasma, but, at the time of this review, it was still uncertain if SARS-CoV-2 could be transmitted from those with pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic infections.3

March 18, 2020

On March 18, Blood Transfusion published an article written by a group at several Blood Centers in a few provinces in China. This article discussed efforts to minimize the impact of blood shortages due to COVID-19. It was noted that the rising pandemic had had a profound impact on the number of blood donations, and on blood safety. Because it was now recognized that there is a long incubation period and a significant number of asymptomatic cases, this posed a huge challenge in recruiting blood donors. In China, strictly restricted mobility led to a decrease in donations across the country. Donors were recruited through various methods, including the use of social media. Social distancing during blood donations and thorough cleaning and disinfecting of donor areas were enforced. Screening procedures were enhanced to include temporary isolation of blood products for 14 days after collection and delaying release for clinical use. At the same time, donors were followed up until the expiration of the products. If a donor was found to test positive for COVID-19 after donation, the blood products were recalled. These new protocols in place were helping to insure adequate donations and the safety of blood products. ne interesting note is that this article referred to the epidemic as “effectively controlled” and that “normal medical services had been resumed”.4

Meanwhile, in the US, American Red Cross was pleading for blood donors. On March 17 it was reported that 2,700 mobile blood drives had been cancelled at a loss of 86,000 units of blood potentially collected. On March 21, 4 days later, that number had risen to more than 5,000 blood drives canceled at a loss of 170,000 units. As more schools, workplaces, churches and college campuses closed down in response to the pandemic, those institutions had to cancel their blood drives. Social distancing guidelines and shelter in place orders resulted in fewer people donating blood. In addition, an FDA mandate from February, that people who had traveled to areas with COVID-19 outbreaks should wait at least 28 days before donating blood, most likely contributed to the shortage. Dr. Justin Kreuter, from the Mayo Clinic Blood Donor Center, stated that the blood shortage was not due to more COVID-19 patients needing blood products. Rather, “it’s a lack of donations coming in.”5

April 1, 2020

procedures that the Chinese had instated. Mobile blood drives were shut down, but collection centers remained open. TV commercials, radio ads, You Tube videos and social media called for blood donors, assuring them that this was essential and that donating blood was safe. Donations were arranged through appointments only, and potential donors contacted and verbally screened for symptoms and risk factors before appearing to donate. On arrival at the centers, temperatures were taken and travel and symptoms questions were asked before a donor was allowed to enter the center. The use of masks and social distancing, along with extra cleaning and donor chair decontamination between donors were all implemented.

In an effort to open up the pool of potential donors, the FDA reviewed current studies and epidemiological data and concluded that certain donor eligibility criteria could be modified without compromising the safety of the blood supply. On April 2, 2020 the FDA approved several important changes in donor qualifications. These revisions included the following:

  • For male donors deferred for having sex with another male: the recommended deferral period changed from 12 months to 3 months.
  • For female donors deferred for having sex with a man who had sex with another man: the recommended deferral period changed from 12 months to 3 months
  • The deferral period for recent tattoos and piercing was changed from 12 months to 3 months
  • For people who have traveled to malaria-endemic areas, the recommended deferral period was changed from 12 months to 3 months. In addition, the guidance notes that deferral can be waived for these donors, provided the blood components are pathogen-reduced using an FDA-approved pathogen reduction device.
  • For donors who spent time in European countries or on military bases in Europe who were previously deferred due to potential risk of transmission of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease or Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the FDA has eliminated the deferrals and these individuals may now qualify to donate.6

Despite loosening requirements, advertising, and calls from the blood centers for additional donors, the shortages remained. To address the decline in blood product availability, it became essential to review the principles of patient blood management (PBM). PBM is defined as “the timely application of evidence-based medical and surgical concepts designed to maintain hemoglobin concentration, optimize hemostasis and minimize blood loss in an effort to improve patient outcome.”7 Firstly, elective procedures were put on hold, thus freeing up units for the most needy patients. Despite this, many blood banks still had their standing orders decreased. In many cases, Blood bank Medical Directors approved changes in transfusion triggers. At the hospital where I work, the transfusion trigger was changed from a hemoglobin of 8g/dL to 7 g/dL. New changes of SOP were approved to issue to all patients, except females of child bearing age, Rh positive units instead of more scarce Rh negative units. We also have a large NICU unit and baby units were not available from ARC, so we were using the newest units available, when necessary for these patients.

By April 8, 15,000 blood drives had been cancelled across the US, at a potential loss of almost 500,000 donated units. One technologist reported in an online Blood bank professionals group, that “Our supplier downgraded us in terms of standard inventory (about 40%), but our transfusion numbers have dropped at least as much.”8 With the decrease in usage and the careful patient blood management, blood needs were met.

May 12, 2020

AABB began sending out a weekly COVID impact survey for hospital transfusion services survey in late March. Many questions on the survey, and the resulting charts and graphs, are related to COVID convalescent plasma practices and procedures (details in my next blog!), but one important graph produced by this survey shows the increase in inventory wastage due to changes related to COVID-19. These changes due to COVID-19 can be a decrease in patients and elective surgeries or changes in transfusion protocols. In early April, in the first few weeks of the survey, 25%-28% of hospitals responding reported an increase in inventory wastage. This corresponds to when donors started coming back to donate, and usage dropped. This percent of hospitals reporting wastage increased each week until the week of May 4-7 when 54% of hospitals reported inventory wastage. This may be due to several factors. The units collected at the end of March and early April, have reached their 42 day expirations. Donors came out initially in response to the call for blood, but now, these units have expired, and it has not yet been 56 days when these donors can donate again. Usage also decreased during this time. COVID patients have not generally had heavy use of red cells, in particular, and doctors have been very conservative in usage with all patients. For the week of May 11-14, as more hospitals are planning to resume elective surgeries, and for the first time in the 8 weeks, fewer hospitals (52.0%) reported an increase in wastage due to changes related to the pandemic. Of the 100 respondents, 59% reported they are resuming “some” elective surgeries before mid-May and 28.0% are doing so after mid-May.9

What does this mean for the future of our blood supply during this pandemic? On May 12, a group of Blood bank professionals, when asked in an informal online survey, had had varying answers. These were likely dependent on location, both geographic and city vs. rural, and size of the hospital. One comment was that “We have gone from huge shortages to throwing away massive units not being used. Hospital is empty.” Another tech said “We were way overstocked a week ago, now we’re dipping way below average.” Technologists in Florida, Oregon and Pennsylvania reported low inventory. Techs in Ohio and Maryland reported their inventory to be very healthy. But these reports could easily vary between areas of the individual state, and even different hospitals in the same city. Another technologist commented “We had a mass of donors when this all started and now all those units are expiring!” The shortage of donors will likely continue, but may relax a bit with some states beginning to lift restrictions. We likely won’t see a huge drove of donors, all at once, which is actually good because it will spread out expiration dates. But, though things may be opening up, it is unlikely that we will see blood drives at schools, workplaces and churches for some time, and this is a huge source of our countries blood supply.

We have seen a big swing in both inventories and usage. After elective and with surgeries have been put on hold for months, we may see an increase over the typical number of elective surgeries, which will mean we will see an increase in blood usage, and with a lack of donors, inventories may drop again.

As far as blood safety, we know now that SARS-CoV-2 did not follow the path of SARS and MERS. We know that it can definitely be transmitted from person to person, and can be transmitted by people who are asymptomatic. But, we also know that, in general, respiratory viruses are not known to be transmitted by blood transfusion. So, from what we know at this time, it is likely not necessary to routinely screen blood products for SARS-CoV-2, and not necessary to isolate blood products after collection and delay release of the products. It is recommended that blood centers encourage self-deferral for donors who have traveled to a COVID-19 affected area or been in contact with an infected person in the past 14 days and to screen donors carefully for fever and respiratory symptoms. With these practices in place, we can ensure an adequate and safe blood supply. We will continue to see swings in volumes, but with careful patient blood management, we will ride these waves and come out on top. Thanks to all our wonderful Blood Bank Technologists who are helping manage our country’s blood supplies!

References

  1. First Travel-related Case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Detected in United States – CDC, January 21, 2020
  2. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2020/01/31/secretary-azar-declares-public-health-emergency-us-2019-novel-coronavirus.html
  3. L. Chang, Y. Yan, L. Wang Coronavirus disease 2019: coronaviruses and blood safety. Transfus Med Rev (2020)
  4. Xiaohong, et al. Blood transfusion during the COVID-19 outbreak, Blood Transfusion (2020)
  5. https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/critical-blood-shortages-because-of-covid-19/
  6. https://www.fda.gov/media/92490/download
  7. http://sabm.org
  8. Facebook Blood Bank professionals page, May 12, 2020
  9. http://www.aabb.org/advocacy/regulatorygovernment/Documents/AABB-COVID-19-Impact-Survey-Snapshot.pdf

-Becky Socha, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM BB CM graduated from Merrimack College in N. Andover, Massachusetts with a BS in Medical Technology and completed her MS in Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. She has worked as a Medical Technologist for over 30 years. She’s worked in all areas of the clinical laboratory, but has a special interest in Hematology and Blood Banking. When she’s not busy being a mad scientist, she can be found outside riding her bicycle.

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