Nova Scotia

After blood donations plummet during pandemic, donors answer the call — big time

When blood donations dropped by 40 per cent across the country amid coronavirus fears and warnings to stay home, political and health leaders issued an urgent appeal for people who can donate blood to continue. Donations have bounced back, and the hope is, donors will keep returning.

'This is a case of bringing out the best in people,' official says

A man gives blood at the Bayers Road donation clinic in Halifax. Blood donations dropped sharply last week as the country reacted to the coronavirus pandemic. (Canadian Blood Services)

For Peter MacDonald and his co-workers across the country at Canadian Blood Services, blood donation offices started seeing a sharp turn for the worse two weeks ago — just as COVID-19 cases grew.

MacDonald, the director of donor relations for the Atlantic provinces, noticed a shift on March 12, the day Ontario announced that schools would remain closed after March Break.

A steady stream of cancellations started, quickly amounting to a massive, 40 per cent drop in donations last Monday and Tuesday in his region. A similar reduction was experienced from coast to coast.

"If a trend like that would have continued it would have been worrying for us," he said from the processing centre in Dartmouth, N.S.

Blood products have a shelf life. While plasma can be frozen and red cells last 42 days, platelets — needed by cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy — only last seven days. 

But there has since been a reversal of fortune, thanks to blood donors who are answering an urgent plea. Donations have bounced back at clinics across the country, as Canadians heed the call of political and public health leaders.

The Canadian Blood Services processing centre in Dartmouth, N.S., where blood products are separated before distribution. (Canadian Blood Services)

Last week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, chief public health officer Theresa Tam and, more recently, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang, asked people who can donate to continue — even as they're repeatedly told to stay at home as much as possible and maintain social distance.

Cydney Kane, a third year student at the Schulich School of Law in Halifax, saw the plea on her social media feed.

"Just seeing the call go out and knowing that the need is going on and knowing that I could do something to help was more than enough to get me out and book an an appointment," she said shortly after giving blood at the Halifax clinic on Tuesday.

She's far from the only one rolling up her sleeve this week. Blood donation targets are being met or exceeded in cities from Vancouver to St. John's; mobile clinics in smaller communities are seeing a similar uptick, MacDonald says. 

In Halifax, donations are up 20 per cent so far this week and appointments are booked up into early April.

"So everybody dropped out at the same time, and everybody's back up to 100 per cent donations and actually exceeding donations," said MacDonald.

He thinks the motivation stems from a sense of helplessness and a desire to make a difference.

"This is a case of bringing out the best in people," he said. 

Law student Cydney Kane is among those who responded to the plea from officials for blood donations. (Submitted by Cydney Kane)

Kane had no qualms as she gave blood for the 13th time. At the Halifax clinic, there are enhanced coronavirus protocols such as additional questions concerning travel, health and contacts, disposable pamphlets have replaced reusable ones, cleaning and disinfecting are frequent, and chairs have been removed to ensure physical distancing. Donation is now by appointment only.

"I was kind of thinking there probably is not many other places that are going to be much safer," said Kane.

The challenge is sustaining the momentum as pandemic measures are anticipated to last weeks if not months. A big surge in donations is not what's needed.

"For patients who rely on blood, this is a marathon, not a sprint," said MacDonald.

Peter MacDonald is the director of donor relations in the Atlantic region for Canadian Blood Services. (Canadian Blood Services)

About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.