With the resumption of elective surgeries at Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center, the demand for blood is increasing — as is the number of no-shows for blood drives.

The American Red Cross recently renewed its call for blood donors and started testing Monday, June 15, for a limited time all blood, platelet and plasma donations for COVID-19 antibodies.

“In recent weeks, we’ve seen hospital demand for blood products grow by 30% after a sharp decline in early April,” said Carrie Wiste, who works in donor recruitment for the American Red Cross.

According to officials, antibody testing will indicate if the donor’s immune system has produced antibodies to the coronavirus, regardless of whether they developed symptoms, and whether donors may have possibly been exposed to the virus responsible for the respiratory illness.

“We expect to offer this test throughout the summer months and will evaluate over the coming months if we are able to continue testing dependent on available funding and the evolving needs of the pandemic,” Wiste said.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Carrie Wiste is involved in donor recruitment for the American Red Cross. Submitted photo / American Red Cross
Carrie Wiste is involved in donor recruitment for the American Red Cross. Submitted photo / American Red Cross

Donors are not required to sign consent forms for the antibody testing. No additional blood is needed for the test. The Red Cross blood donation process at its blood drives and donation centers will not change regarding the testing for COVID-19 antibodies.

“People haven’t been turning up like they did at the beginning of the crisis. ... We’ve seen an increase in the number of no-shows,” Wiste said of the past weeks of shuttered businesses and stay-at-home orders from the state.

Blood, platelet and plasma donations will be tested for the COVID-19 antibodies using samples obtained at the time of donation and sent to a testing laboratory where the samples will also undergo routine screening and infectious disease testing, according to Wiste.

Elective surgeries were allowed to start again May 11, bringing in more people and revenue for Essentia Health-St. Joseph for non-emergency work. The health care provider had suspended elective surgeries to prepare for a possible surge of COVID-19 cases.

The American Red Cross provides about 40% of the nation’s blood and blood components, but supply does not always meet demand because about 3% of age-eligible people donate blood yearly.

“Typically, we see a certain percentage of no-shows at any given drive, and that number went down at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, and it has returned to more normal levels recently,” Wiste said.

Antibodies are formed when fighting an infection such as COVID-19, but Red Cross officials caution that a positive antibody test result does not confirm infection or immunity and as such the Red Cross is not testing donors to diagnose illness, referred to as a diagnostic test.

“We recognize that individuals and public health organizations desire more information about COVID-19, and as an organization dedicated to helping others, the Red Cross is fortunate to be able to step up to help during this pandemic,” Wiste said.

Donors who test positive may be eligible to participate in the Red Cross’ convalescent plasma donation program, said Dr. Greg Davis, an Essentia Health pulmonologist.

Dr. Greg Davis is an Essentia Health pulmonologist. Submitted photo / Essentia Health
Dr. Greg Davis is an Essentia Health pulmonologist. Submitted photo / Essentia Health

The convalescent plasma is being evaluated as a treatment for those with, for example, serious or immediately life-threatening COVID-19 infections.

“The Red Cross will coordinate with state health departments or federal agencies to provide requested COVID-19 antibody test results as all work to learn more about this virus, its prevalence in our communities and how we can prevent its spread,” Wiste said.

As standard practice, the Red Cross does not reveal the identity of an individual in relation to their test result, unless required by law, and data are most often supplied in aggregate.

COVID-19 antibody test results will be available within seven to 10 days in the Red Cross Blood Donor App or donor portal at RedCrossBlood.org, according to officials, and the test has been authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“The blood can be used if a donor has the coronavirus antibody. We see no reason why the donor could not have elective surgery, as it’s the same as any other donation for the donor,” Wiste said.

Dr. Troy Duininck, chairman of the surgery department for Essentia Health in the Brainerd lakes area, said the COVID-19 antibodies test doesn’t play a role for having surgery.

Regarding elective surgeries, there have been 58 orthopedic, 56 general (hernia, etc.), 29 urological, 23 gynecological/obstetrics and eight podiatric surgeries performed at Essentia Health since May 11 when elective surgeries resumed at the health care provider.

“We are testing every patient for COVID-19 prior to surgery. Antibody testing is not part of the process for surgery patients,” Duininck said.

Blood is essential for surgeries, cancer treatment, chronic illnesses and traumatic injuries, so the need for blood is constant. A single car crash victim may require as many as 100 units of blood, according to the Red Cross, and every two seconds someone in the U.S. needs blood.

“We had to implement a no walk-in policy during coronavirus to allow for social distancing. … Now, we’ve amended that to allow walk-ins to take open appointment spots. … We’re trying to keep it appointment only as much as possible,” Wiste said.

Blood and platelets cannot be manufactured, according to the Red Cross, and they can only come from volunteer donors; one blood donation can potentially save up to three lives.

“There’s this public health crisis we are working through and it’s rapidly changing. It’s complex. And, you know, we’re working hard to maintain a healthy blood supply that meets that demand,” Wiste said.

Donald Popp of Royalton relaxes by reading the newspaper after donating blood Tuesday, June 16, at the American Red Cross blood drive at First United Church in Little Falls. Diana Poehler / First United Church
Donald Popp of Royalton relaxes by reading the newspaper after donating blood Tuesday, June 16, at the American Red Cross blood drive at First United Church in Little Falls. Diana Poehler / First United Church

Little Falls blood drive

First United Church will host an American Red Cross blood drive 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 17, at 1000 First St. SE in Little Falls.

To make an appointment to donate, call 320-632-5468 or the Red Cross at 1-800-733-2763.

To protect the health and safety of Red Cross staff and donors, individuals who do not feel well or who believe they may be ill with COVID-19 should postpone their donation.

How to donate blood

To make a blood donation appointment for any upcoming blood drive, download the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visit RedCrossBlood.org or call 800-RED CROSS (800-733-2767) to make an appointment or for more information.

A blood donor card or driver’s license or two other forms of identification are required at check-in at the blood collection site. Potential donors must have not donated in the last 56 days.

Those who are 17 years of age in most states (16 with parental consent where allowed by state law), weigh at least 110 pounds and are in generally good health may be eligible to donate.

(High school students and other donors 18 years of age and younger also have to meet certain height and weight requirements.)

Donors are required to wear a face covering or mask. Blood drives will follow social distancing guidelines, including spacing out donor beds, waiting and refreshment areas. Donors and staff have their temperatures checked prior to entering a blood drive or donation center.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.