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The American Red Cross has been facing blood shortage issues throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Those issues have recently reached crisis levels nationally with staffing challenges, lagging donations and bad weather all part of the problem.
According to the organization, which says it supplies 40 percent of the country’s blood, it has experienced a 10 percent drop in blood donations since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Winter weather across the country and the recent surge of COVID-19 cases are compounding the already-dire situation facing the blood supply,” Red Cross Medical Director Dr. Baia Lasky said in a statement, as reported by NPR. “Please, if you are eligible, make an appointment to give blood or platelets in the days and weeks ahead to ensure no patient is forced to wait for critical care.”
This once again emphasizes the powerful impact we can all have as individuals, by choosing to donate blood at a time of great need. We encourage people in Maine to consider donating, and to visit the American Red Cross of Northern New England website for more information on how to do so.
Individual action, however, is not the only way to improve this dire situation. There is also an obvious policy change that can help: removing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s outdated blood donation barrier for gay men.
Much has been written, and rightfully so, about the homophobic and discriminatory nature of this policy, which prevents donations from men who have had sex with men within the prior three months due to fears about HIV.
This policy is discriminatory, but it’s more than that. At a time of tremendous need, with a better understanding of HIV and how to identify it, the restriction is self-defeating from a public health perspective — especially given advances in screening over the years.
“Though the majority of HIV cases in the U.S. occur in gay or bisexual men, the effectiveness of screening for HIV has improved massively,” medical student Christian Carrier recently wrote in an opinion piece for the Chicago Tribune that was published by the Bangor Daily News. “Current HIV tests have an accuracy of 99 percent to 100 percent, and the risk of acquiring HIV through a blood transfusion is 1 in 1.5 million. Our scientific progress has pushed us past the need for this precaution.”
The testing safeguard isn’t exactly new. Here are a few questions this editorial board was asking back in 2014: “But why keep the ban, especially when blood is tested after it’s taken from donors? Why not have similar temporary restrictions for gay men that also apply to straight men and women? The FDA can ensure the safety of the nation’s donated blood supply without unnecessarily singling out a particular population.”
Again, we hope anyone capable of donating blood will think about doing so. And we hope policymakers who are artificially constraining the supply of healthy potential donors will take that unnecessary barrier out of the way.
“The need for blood is more dire than ever, especially amid the pandemic and holiday season,” Carrier wrote. “Research has shown that by lifting a blood donation ban for men who have sex with men, an additional 360,600 men would donate, leading to an additional 615,300 pints of blood per year. This is enough blood to save the lives of more than a million people.”
The FDA has previously updated this policy, changing it from a lifetime ban to a one-year waiting period in 2015, and reducing it to a three month wait in 2020 because of the urgent need for blood. It’s time to completely get rid of this moral and scientific relic, and to allow more people to make the choice to help address our persistent need for blood donations.