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R.I. blood supply in jeopardy amid COVID-19 concerns

With many mobile blood drive cancelations, centers appeal to donors to continue giving blood

Many mobile blood drives in Rhode Island scheduled for this upcoming fall have been canceled due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, according to Kara LeBlanc, marketing communications manager of the Rhode Island Blood Center.

“The pandemic has essentially destroyed the whole mobile blood drive model,” LeBlanc said, which is a dangerous problem for Rhode Island because “50 percent of our blood supply comes from mobile blood drives.” 

The R.I. Blood Center heavily relies upon schools and colleges opening up in the fall, which “gives the blood supply an immediate boost,” LeBlanc said. But this is precisely “what’s not happening,” she added. The uncertainty of when schools, colleges and workplaces will return to in-person operations is severely straining the state’s blood supply. Although the R.I. Blood Center is still trying to host as many mobile blood drives as possible, up to 7,500 donations of blood that normally come from schools and colleges are up in the air, according to LeBlanc.

The cancellations could also spill over to drives that are traditionally held on campus. 

At the University, the Brown/RISD Hillel has hosted mobile R.I. Blood Drives for many years. 

During the 2019-20 school year, the R.I. Blood Center collected 315 donations from Hillel’s blood drives, with another drive collecting 164 donations in summer 2019, LeBlanc wrote in an email to The Herald. The Blood Center predicted that an additional 80 units were lost in April 2020 due to the pandemic. 

“Hillel is happy to host these blood drives, and to partner with the Rhode Island Blood Center,” Rabbi Josh Bolton, Hillel’s executive director, said. “There’s a preeminent Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, of working on behalf of saving the lives of individuals of all backgrounds, within and beyond the Jewish community.”

It remains uncertain whether Hillel will host blood drives this coming fall. “Where we are today might not be where we are in two weeks,” Bolton said. Decisions about whether there will be any upcoming Hillel-hosted blood drives — and what such drives would look like — are being made primarily by the R.I. Blood Center, he added.

“We’re working with all of our partners to kind of get back to normal as quick as possible but also prioritizing the safety of students, and the safety of our professionals, staff (and) volunteers,” Bolton said. He added that despite the challenges, Hillel is in conversation with the R.I. Blood Center about hosting a drive this fall.

To underscore the blood supply’s dire situation, LeBlanc stated that if these Hillel-partnered blood drives do not run, that results in “close to 500 donations that are gone, and that’s just one school.”

She added, “The last thing (doctors and nurses) need right now is to be worried about whether or not the blood that they actually need to save patient’s lives … is going to be there.”

In addition to tapping into a large student population, mobile blood drives are also vital to the state’s blood supply because these drives are so convenient for many donors. “All of the people that we used to go to, we’re asking them to change (their) behavior,” LeBlanc said.

Now, the R.I. Blood Center is urging donors — both veteran and new — to make appointments to give blood at their six locations throughout the state. Each R.I. Blood Center location has extended its work days and hours to make donating blood as convenient and as accessible as possible for donors, “but they still have to come,” added LeBlanc.

Workers at the R.I. Blood Center is aware that one of the many reasons more people aren’t donating blood during this time is because of safety concerns due to the pandemic. To ease these worries, the R.I Blood Center has implemented many new safety initiatives, including booking appointments in advance, social distancing, wearing masks and extra cleaning of all materials, said LeBlanc.

Some mobile drives are still happening, but “they’re just significantly fewer than we had before, simply because the sponsors aren’t operating the way that they used to,” LeBlanc said. She added that each site is checked to ensure the drive can comply with social distancing guidelines.

One such location is the East Side/Mt. Hope YMCA. For its upcoming blood drive Sept. 23, the YMCA wants to do “as much as we can for the local community,” said Executive Director of the East Side/Mt. Hope YMCA Lamel Moore.

Moore is hoping that the drive has a good turnout and that the convenient location will encourage more donors, stating that “instead of bringing people to the blood center at various spots across the state, we are partnering with the Rhode Island Blood Center to bring the blood center to (donors) while they’re here at the YMCA.”

In addition to mobile drives being canceled or in flux, other nationwide issues are plaguing the R.I. Blood Center. “One of the things that blood centers do historically is we help each other out,” LeBlanc said. When regional events, such as hurricanes or snowstorms, occur, “we send blood to other blood centers and they send it to us,” but now, “we’re all in the exact same situation,” she said.

In fact, the need for blood has only increased. Not only is standard blood necessary, but convalescent plasma from those who have recovered from COVID-19 is also vital for those who are currently sick with the virus. As a result, “our overall goal has increased,” LeBlanc said.

The R.I. Blood Center is asking people to make donating blood a priority, because, ultimately, “it’s a community blood supply, so it’s for you and me and my family and your family and our friends, and it has to be there for everyone. All the time, 24/7, 365 days a year,” LeBlanc said. “Someone else isn’t taking care of the blood supply. It’s all of our responsibility because it can only come from one human being to another.”


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