Massachusetts General Hospital Says Blood Donations Are Down Dramatically, Need Is Urgent

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About one year ago the Commonwealth of Massachusetts shut down sectors of the economy in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

While the virus has taken the lives of more than half a million Americans and hospitalized many more, people remain hesitant to donate blood out of fear of the virus, Kim Cronin, manager of Massachusetts General Hospital Blood Donor Services, told NewBostonPost by telephone on Monday afternoon.

Cronin said that over the past year, blood donations for the hospital have been down at least 60 percent. She said that at the start of the shutdown, the situation was worse than it is now. Even so, donations are still down overall from where they would be in a typical, non-pandemic year.

“It really has impacted us significantly,” Cronin said. “We have two bloodmobiles that go to businesses and communities as well as a donor center. At the beginning of all of this, we didn’t know as much and people were very afraid. Nobody wanted to come near a hospital. We were reaching out to many of our regular donors, and they were just afraid of contracting the virus. We were sustained with our own hospital employees donating more than anything, and that barely sustained us.”

She noted that while the idea of donating blood outside of a hospital via a bloodmobile appealed to many amid the pandemic, remote work and schooling have made that less feasible.

She said that pre-pandemic, Mass. General did 20 to 31 bloodmobile events per month, with staff traveling to a site to let people donate blood. She said that number is down to five to seven per month now. 

Cronin noted that at one event, staff members now have to bring both of their bloodmobiles to maintain social distancing. They also need to ask for indoor space to do registrations and for their refreshment center to ensure people maintain their blood sugar level.

“We’ve been looking at getting them at community centers, but towns and cities don’t want them because they think it’ll be a super spreader,” she said. “We have to talk to towns about how it’s an essential activity according to the federal government and about all of the precautions we take to make sure people don’t get the virus. We used to be able to process 75 to 80 people with a bloodmobile. We’re able to keep the distancing by just having two donors on each bus at a time, but that brings down our ability to collect. We’re able to get about 35 people with twice as much equipment. We’ve been struggling and the struggle continues.”

Another problem that Cronin noted is that people are comfortable at home, so they may be less apt to go out and donate — even if there is a blood drive taking place near them. Many also want to minimize their contact with other people.

“If they’ve had a friend or family who had the virus or they live with elderly parents, they don’t want to take the risk,” she said. “We’ve always had to abide by very strict infection control policies. The protocols implemented for COVID weren’t all that new to us. Everything is wiped down. All of our staff wears gloves.”

She also noted that they make sure that people wear clean, effective masks while donating.

“We’re giving people new masks when they come because some people’s definition of a mask is very loose,” Cronin said. “For some people, it’s holding a handkerchief up to their face and for others, it’s a gaiter filled with holes. That’s not really good, either. We implemented right away that everyone would be given one of our surgical masks to wear to ensure that it was clean and that it fit.”

Cronin said the entire process to donate blood from registration to taking the last sip of juice at the refreshment center takes about 30 minutes, lessening the risk of spread.

She also noted that even when the pandemic is over, there will always be a need for blood.

“We never have enough,” she said. “Some people will call and say if you really have an emergency, call me. I’d be calling them every day. We never have enough blood to get through the day. All it takes is one emergency. We had one person the other day use 100 units of blood in a liver transplant.

“It’s not just when you hear about some tragedy you see on TV like the Boston Marathon Bombing,” Cronin added. “It’s an extremely safe process. With more people getting the vaccine, I’m hoping more people will be coming through the doors soon. There are three little kids under the age of 4 that are fighting forms of cancer and their parents are having blood drives. That’s helping our supply, but people really only tend to donate when they hear a story like that or know the family, but we have stories like that every day, we have those patients — multiple patients — and people just don’t realize that.”