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Virtual learning results in fewer school blood drives — and fewer blood donations

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20% of the American Red Cross' blood supply comes from school blood drives. There have been less of those drives in 2020 and 2021, as students have mostly been learning remotely.

Among the seemingly never-ending list of pandemic repercussions is a shortage of blood donations. And that can mean life or death for patients hospitalized from COVID-19, or otherwise.

Winter is always a tough season for blood donations. There’s seasonal illness, inclement weather. And a pandemic certainly doesn’t help. 

“20% of our blood supply actually comes from school drives. Those are high schools and colleges. And when they went to a virtual learning environment, we lost all of those drives.”

That’s James Jarvis, Executive Director of the American Red Cross, Cape Fear Chapter. His chapter covers the far eastern portions of North Carolina. 

“Similarly, a lot of folks have gone to the remote workforce. So if you look at 2020 versus 2019, we've actually had 3 times the number of cancelled blood drives.”

Those numbers are on par with what the country is seeing as a whole. Donations are down, and at the same time, they’re more critical than ever.

For example, convalescent plasma donations are especially in short supply. Those contain antibodies from someone who has previously had COVID-19, which are then given to currently hospitalized COVID patients to help them fight the virus.

When someone gives blood, it’s automatically tested for those antibodies. 

“So if you are identified as having COVID antibodies, then we will reach back out to you and say, ‘would you be interested in donating convalescent plasma?’”

But there are many different types of blood donations, and they don’t only benefit coronavirus patients.

In 2010, Kate Bauer was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome: a blood cancer. The only cure was a bone marrow transplant, and to qualify for that, she needed 100 blood transfusions to survive. 

“And I mean barely surviving. Even with those hundred transfusions it was difficult for me to live a normal life. I bit a hangnail after my first chemo, and ended up in the hospital for a week. I had to stop my chemo for a while.”

In the end, she received the transfusions — and a bone marrow donor match. Today, her husband donates blood every chance he can, to try to repay the 100 pints of blood she received. And while Bauer doesn’t know the name of her donors, she wishes every day that she could thank them personally. 

“When I became allergic to some of the platelets and they had people who were on call to go to the hospital and donate platelets for me. I mean, that to this day makes me choke up. To go and spend three hours hooked up, to donate a pint of platelets for me. I can't thank them enough.”

James Jarvis — like Kate Bauer — agrees that the act of giving blood is inherently selfless. And he says it’s not very time-consuming either — with a whole blood donation taking just one hour, on average.

“If you think about what could you do with an hour that could be more important for somebody else, you know, what could you do with an hour? That's going to potentially give a baby that's having complications at a local hospital, a chance to make it through those complications. That's going to help a car accident victim, which could be any of us, have the blood that they need.”

What’s especially cool about the process today, he says, is that you can actually track where your blood is going through the Red Cross app — from the time it’s sent out, to when it arrives to help a patient.  

“You'll get text alerts to say, it's actually been given to someone at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, or it's been given to someone in Goldsboro, or maybe you have a rare blood type and it's been sent to Cleveland, Ohio where somebody needs it.”

Jarvis says he realizes that not everyone feels comfortable about giving blood right now. But, he stresses that it’s safe, it’s efficient — and it’s one way to indirectly connect with someone, and help them in this time of crisis. 

You can sign up for a blood drive near you here, or go here to find more information on becoming a bone marrow donor.

Hannah is WHQR's All Things Considered host, and also reports on science, the environment, and climate change. She enjoys loud music, documentaries, and stargazing; and is the proud mother of three cats, a dog, and many, many houseplants. Contact her via email at hbreisinger@whqr.org, or on Twitter @hbreisinger.