As COVID-19 curbs blood supply, donors open their arms

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Bloomfield Hills — Ian Shaffer always squeezes a rubber ball as the technician slides a needle into his arm to siphon off some platelets. Wednesday, the ball was wearing a surgical glove.

Lead technologist Claudia Schleder inserts a needle in the right arm of donor Ian Shaffer of Oxford as he donates his platelets and plasma at the American Red Cross Bloomfield Donation Center in Bloomfield Twp., Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, officials are asking donors to make an appointment to donate blood by calling 1-800-Give Life, or to schedule a donation call 1-800-Redcross.

Shaffer was wearing lavender-colored gloves, too, which was also a first at the American Red Cross donation center on Telegraph Road. Chalk it up to the coronavirus. And here's another side effect of COVID-19: Michigan needs blood.

The entire nation is in distressingly short supply, according to the Red Cross. Coronavirus caution has led to the cancellation of nearly 4,000 blood drives, with a net loss of more than 100,000 donations.

More than 200 of the drives were scheduled in Michigan, and the state is shy more than 6,000 donations, most of them far simpler and speedier than what Shaffer was doing.

"We strive for a five-day supply," says American Red Cross of Michigan spokesman Todd Kulman, "and I can tell you we're well below that."

The phlebotomists who stuffed the ball into the glove aren't panicking — they are the coolest of hands — but at headquarters in Lansing, it's understood that if this keeps up, people could die.

It won't be Shaffer's fault.

He's a 49-year-old rental manager from Oxford. At 6-feet-8, he has plenty of type B+ blood and he shares it monthly, giving platelets that typically go to cancer patients.

One needle, in his right arm, sends blood through a tube and into a centrifuge. A needle in his left arm routes his plasma, red cells, white cells and a saline solution back into his system.

A standard drop-off-a-quick-pint blood donation takes eight to 10 minutes. Shaffer budgets 2½ hours.

He does it because he can, he says, and people should. Pretty simple.

"It's not difficult," he says. "All I have to do is sit here."

The medical-grade Barcaloungers at the blood center are equipped with flat screens and Netflix. He was planning to binge-watch "Lost in Space."

Someone else Wednesday was watching Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai." A rack in the waiting area is full of options, with three bins labeled "Movies" and another that says, "Whoa! More friggin' movies."

There's a table nearby full of post-donation packaged snacks, and an array of padded chairs in a leafy print. Every other chair has a sign taped to the back cushion, new this week: "Please do not sit here."

Phlebotomist Catherine Sallans, left, of Lake Orion, takes the temperature of all donors, including, Colleen Woodbury, of Troy, a homecare infusion registered nurse, before she donates blood at the American Red Cross Bloomfield Donation Center.

Social distancing has come to the donation center, along with some other fresh precautions. Just inside the front door, phlebotomist Catherine Sallans was taking the temperature of everyone who walked in. Anyone hitting 99.5 degrees had to walk right back out.

Everybody was issued protective gloves. Even the regulars were taken aside for questioning: Have you been to China? To Italy? On a cruise? In an airport?

Bob Carlson of Clarkston said the questions were simpler when he started donating blood in 1974: "Are you feeling well today? Have you ever been to Haiti?"

Carlson, 64, sells tools to manufacturers. He has type O- blood that's suitable for infants because it lacks an antibody they can't abide, and he gives two pints at a time because "that way they only call me every 16 weeks."

"I give," he says, "because what if I was in a situation where I needed blood, and they didn't have any?"

If your face and your veins are familiar, you'll get reminder calls. To make an appointment, call (800) 733-2767, more easily remembered as (800) RED CROSS, or try (800) GIVE LIFE.

Walk-ins are accepted, says team supervisor Rose Kraemer, 37, of Redford Township, but at a time when blood is particularly coveted, separation requirements make half the waiting area unusable.

Coronavirus Alerts are displayed on the front door of the American Red Cross' Bloomfield Donation Center in Bloomfield Twp.

Simon Rubin, 33, a type A+ from Sylvan Lake, was turned away with regrets on both sides.

"I just know there's a shortage, and I had some time," he says. "I guess I'll make an appointment."

Kraemer says the Bloomfield Hills donation center actually beat its goals last week. The centers in Novi and Detroit that handle mobile blood drives have had a tougher time: schools have emptied, churches have canceled services, carmakers have closed factories, and other companies have sent workers home with their laptops.

"Blood centers get their biggest boosts in supplies from the blood drives at universities — the young, healthy volunteer donors," says John Waugh, vice president of system laboratories at Henry Ford Health System. While he recognizes the importance of social isolation, from a collection standpoint, "it becomes a problem."

O- and O+, he says, are at critically low levels.

The Red Cross has been coaching hospitals on how to conduct blood drives in the COVID-19 era, with sufficient space between donors and other safety measures. Henry Ford Health System has tentatively scheduled two drives, with the first potentially as soon as next week.

Meantime, Kraemer says, "we're still open seven days a week."

Colleen Woodbury of Troy, a home care infusion nurse and a type A+, says she tries to donate every eight weeks.

She's behind schedule, she concedes, but she made sure to find time Wednesday.

At 63, "I can't afford to give lots of money. I have to save for retirement," she says. "But I have good veins."

Kathy Lynch of Bloomfield Township was raised with a similar attitude and anatomy.

Her father, Raymond Colcer, 89, celebrated his 80th birthday at a Red Cross blood center. The family brought in a cake while he donated platelets.

"At 17, I got walked into a Red Cross," says Lynch, 54, a type B+. Her dad's mantra was, "It doesn't cost any money to donate blood, they can't make it, and it's easy."

Also donating Wednesday, in Lansing, was Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The Red Cross' Kulman said the symbolism was important — and the state can use the pint.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn