Community blood drives have yet to rebound from COVID shutdowns

Community blood drives have yet to rebound from COVID shutdowns, contributing to shortages in the Bay Area.

"The need has never stopped, and we have never closed, " said Kevin Adler, of Vitalant, the region's provider of blood services.

As people become more active and mobile, demand for blood is back to pre-pandemic levels.

But annual collection events, held at universities and large companies, have yet to be reinstated.

"With schools being out and businesses not having employees at their locations, they can't hold blood drives and we're seeing them canceled every single week," said Adler.

The ramifications are real, as recipients attest.

"I was never a blood donor until I was a blood recipient," said Emily Peters of San Francisco.

Peters has donated blood 12 times but says she needs 20 more draws to equal what she received.

In 2016, during childbirth at UCSF Medical Center, Peters suddenly hemorrhaged.

Her pregnancy to that point had been completely free of complications.

"I delivered my daughter Lucy and then I passed out and basically bled to death 15 minutes after she was born." 

But blood arrived- cooler after cooler- a total of 32 units over six hours.

It equated to all the blood in Peter's body - 9 times over - until Peters was stable and regained consciousness.

"It was in that moment that my doctor came in and she was crying," recalled Peters.

"And she said you here's what happened, you had to receive all this blood."

Scenarios like that illustrate why blood suppliers are so eager for blood drives to resume.

"We just need to take the fear away, it's not scary and it's very easy," said Debbie Lintao, who organized a drive Tuesday afternoon in Fairfield.

All 32 slots were filled, and donors who came to the conference room at the Chamber of Commerce were offered restaurant gift cards in an effort to support local eateries too.

"I've been donating myself since 1989 and usually do it four or five days a year, so it's very personal to me," said Lintao, a member of the Women's Council of Realtors in Solano County, host of the event.  

"To hold a blood drive, you just need a space to put the chairs down and be able to keep them six feet apart, so if you have a room available, by all means, do it!"  

Many donors who signed up work in real estate.

"People end up in emergency situations all the time so you have to have blood, no replacement for that," said mortgage broker Tina Norman, as blood dripped from her arm to a vial.

A local gym owner heard about the effort and signed up with a friend.

"I haven't donated for a few years, so it's nice to get back in here and donate again," said Crystal Hassey, "and I thought it would be great to come in and save a few lives."

Every donation can save three lives: with platelets, plasma, or red blood cells.

Normally, San Francisco's  Vitalant center might collect 40 boxes a day, but Tuesday it was 26.

"People are already getting a quick little shot to get the COVID vaccine so what's another small needle in your body?" said Adler, noting that newly-vaccinated people do not need to wait to donate blood.

With Mother's Day approaching, Vitalant is urging people to honor mom by making an appointment to donate blood.

Surgeries, along with accidents and medical emergencies, are stressing the supply.

"It's so scary to think how close I came to dying," said Peters, who left the hospital fully recovered along with her newborn.

With both mother and child in ICU, they didn't meet for a few days.

"And we just had this connection, looking at each other like ‘where have you been?'".

Lucy, now a vibrant 4-year-old, would never have known her mom if not for blood readily available.

"And my husband would have been raising our daughter on his own," mused Peters.

About a year after her medical ordeal, the blood bank arranged for Peters to meet the 32 Bay Area donors who donated the blood she received. 

"To say thank you to someone who saved your life," smiled Peters, "and they didn't even know that they did it!"