With the rapid progression of COVID-19 through the U.S. and rest of the world, chances are either you or someone you know has needed a COVID-19 test. Hospitals are straining their resources with about 685,000 people nationwide needing tests every day—high demand for a currently limited testing capacity.
But recently, the American Red Cross committed to help administer tests, not by looking for active cases, but by seeking out survivors; on June 15, the Red Cross began offering complimentary antibody tests to all blood donors in order to find those who may have the biological keys to fighting the virus.
While the nasal swab is the only widespread way to test for an active infection, COVID-19 survivors can find out if they have had the virus by giving a small blood sample to take an antibody test. Also known as serology tests, these look for virus-fighting proteins, called antibodies, in a person’s blood, which an individual develops after an infection.
“It’s hard to find a viral test for most people,” Christy Peters, the External Communications Manager at the Northwest Ohio branch of the Red Cross, said. “It’s about giving that information to our donors and making them aware.”
Antibody tests can’t determine if a person has the virus at the moment, and a positive test does not necessarily mean that a person is immune (very little is known about possible immunity to COVID-19, and occasionally the tests also pick up common cold and flu antibodies), but they provide valuable data to carriers and health organizations.
The Red Cross has an interest in locating donors who have the antibodies, too: carriers may be able to make a special kind of donation, known as convalescent plasma, that could help save lives.
“Convalescent plasma is plasma donated by individuals who have had COVID-19 and have recovered. Some doctors feel that this is a good treatment, and they’re using it for patients who are ill and who might need a stronger treatment plan,” Peters said.
Plasma is the liquid part of blood that holds viral antibodies. If the plasma of a COVID-19 survivor is given to someone struggling to fight the illness, the donated antibodies may help the recipient recover faster.
Currently, the FDA has not approved any treatments for COVID-19, meaning that convalescent plasma is still experimental. Still, the Mayo Clinic, which has been leading the way on convalescent plasma trials, is optimistic that the treatment may provide some benefit. But regardless if convalescent plasma turns out to be effective at fighting COVID-19, donors are essential to continuing the research on COVID-19 and possible treatments.
“As people continue to contract COVID-19 and have it, there’s going to be the need to have more treatments, including convalescent plasma. So this would allow us to have more possible donors to get that type of product,” Peters said.
While demand for blood products is high, many wonder if it’s safe to donate during the pandemic. Peters assures that the Red Cross has many measures in places to protect the well-being of its donors, volunteers and staff.
“The American Red Cross understands that people might be somewhat hesitant to donate blood,” she said. “Anyone who comes to donate, as well as our staff and any volunteers with a blood drive, all must have masks or face coverings. We’re going to take your temperature before you come into the blood drive. And then once you come into the blood drive, we do have hand sanitizer at every station throughout the process…We’ve done what we can to ensure that everyone remains safe at the blood drive. And we want people to feel comfortable when they come to donate.”
Peters also wants to remind people that hospitals always need blood, especially now, during a global health crisis.
“I think that people often forget that the need for blood is constant, and it’s not something that we can manufacture,” she said. “It’s only because the community comes forward and gives on a regular basis that we’re able to meet the needs of the hospitals that depend on us for blood products.”
Earlier this year, the Red Cross faced a “severe blood shortage” after having to cancel thousands of blood drives due to pandemic concerns, losing about 86,000 potential donations as of March 17. While extreme circumstances caused this particular shortage, the Department of Health and Human Services estimates that if just one percent more of Americans donated regularly, blood shortages would become a thing of the past.
For those looking to get an antibody test, Peters says that the testing will likely continue for the remainder of the summer. After that, the Red Cross will examine the results of the program and assess whether to continue.
Whether you can contribute convalescent plasma or not, Peters says there is an urgent need for people to give blood. Blood and blood products can’t be produced artificially, and of the people who can donate, only a minority do so regularly. Willing donors are the only way for hospitals to replenish their supplies, which they must do constantly.
“I would just remind everyone that this is something that you can do and it’s something that only you can do,” she said. “You really do have the power to change someone’s life and make a huge difference by simply taking an hour out of your day to donate blood.”
Want to donate blood? Visit redcross.org to schedule an appointment.
For more information on convalescent plasma and where to donate, see the following:
America’s Blood Centers
Blood Centers of America
CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance
National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project
Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association
The Fight Is In Us