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Keep the Blood Drives Going During Pandemic

A woman is holding a red heart in her hands.

Not even a pandemic could keep employees of the Naval Nuclear Laboratory in Pittsburgh from their workplace ritual—the monthly blood drive. Even some of those still working from home came out for the cause. 

At a time when corporate and community blood drives are being canceled by the tens of thousands, putting a squeeze on the country's blood supply, the research lab has continued to hold the drives with enhanced safety protocols: No more than 10 people in the room at a time. Masks required at all times. Temperature checks. No walk-ins, only online appointments. Enhanced cleaning by Vitalant, the blood bank running the event.

"Every blood drive has been full," said Diana Burton, manager of communications for the lab. "If you're a giving type of person and you can't volunteer, this is a good way to give back. A lot of employees are grateful to be able to do this," particularly since so many blood drives in the community have been canceled.

Burton has worked with the human resources department to make sure blood donation is safe for the 2,700 employees who choose to participate.

Rebecca McGinnis, acting CHRO/HR operations director for the Naval Nuclear Laboratory, said, "From an HR perspective, we were pleased to support a COVID-19-safe way for our employees to continue to donate blood during this challenging time. We are grateful to all who have and will continue to donate the gift of life."

Blood donations are considered an essential service, but with all the canceled drives, the blood supply has taken a big hit. At the American Red Cross, blood drive cancellations have tripled this year compared to last year.

"Since March, tens of thousands of blood drives have been canceled as schools, businesses and community organizations closed due to the pandemic alone, impacting over 1 million blood donation appointments," said Rodney Wilson, spokesperson for the American Red Cross.

ClubCorp, a Dallas-based chain of country clubs and golf clubs, stepped up once it heard about the Red Cross' need for blood and places to hold drives. While its country clubs are open, banquet halls have sat empty as weddings and other events have been canceled. The company began to use spacious banquet spaces to host blood drives, and both members and employees showed up to donate.

"When COVID hit the executive team at ClubCorp, we knew we needed to answer the call. It was brought to our attention that blood drives were being canceled at an astronomical rate, so we formed a community relations committee and started working with the Red Cross to identify the geographic areas with the greatest need," said Carla Goss, senior marketing manager at ClubCorp. She said the clubs were excited to host, and members and employees were eager to do something to help during the pandemic.

Some 4,419 donors have given 12,285 pints of blood during 122 blood drives at ClubCorp facilities since March. The majority of the events were Red Cross blood drives. 

Even so, it's been challenging for blood banks across the country. 

Vitalant has had 14,000 blood drives canceled since the onset of the pandemic, with a projected loss of 361,000 units of blood. "Some companies, while they may return to work, have closed their buildings to outside visitors," said Mitzy Edgecomb, vice president of donor recruitment at Vitalant. "They don't let anybody but essential workers in. But blood donation is not a social gathering. It is an essential activity that must not stop just because we have these stay-at-home orders. People still need blood. Everyone is so focused on COVID, but there are still people who are undergoing cancer treatments. There are still people who are having heart surgery. There are still people, unfortunately, who have trauma. The blood supply has to continue." 

If companies cannot host a blood drive onsite, Vitalant offers a virtual option in which employees can go to their community blood bank and the company gets credit for each pint donated. 

Ann-Marie Ahern, an employment lawyer at McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman Co. in Cleveland, has some advice for employers on how to avoid legal risk if they host a blood bank at their offices or workplace: "Blood drives are a great act of civic responsibility. It makes it very convenient for employees to donate. But when an employer is sponsoring an activity that potentially touches on your employees' health, you have to be very careful. Making the opportunity available is a worthwhile thing. But companies have to be very careful about crossing the line to do anything that could be perceived as coercive." 

She discouraged offering workers rewards for donating blood. Instead, she said, an employer might offer paid time off to donate blood at a community center. 

Cristina Rouvalis is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh.


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