When schools took precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19, the nation saw a steep drop in one of its largest sources of blood donations: high school blood drives.
The switch to remote learning —in addition to precautions like social distancing in school buildings—meant student groups stopped holding blood drives, said Paul Sullivan, senior vice president of donor services at the American Red Cross.
That contributed to an unprecedented shortage: In January, the Red Cross declared a national blood crisis for the first time ever as blood supplies fell to their lowest level in a decade.
It conveys to students in a very direct and profound way how an act of giving can make a real difference in another human's life.
High school and college students, who typically make up about about a fourth of all donors, dropped to 10 percent as the overall number of people giving blood decreased, Sullivan said. That number is only now starting to bounce back as schools and communities ease COVID-19 precautions.
The drop is an example of a vital, but sometimes under-the-radar, way that schools contribute to their communities, Sullivan said.
The Red Cross assures potential donors— including students—that giving blood is safe. Precautions include additional screenings to ensure donors have not been ill recently. The organization says there are no reported instances of COVID-19, a respiratory illness, being transmitted through blood.
Here, Sullivan discusses what students learn from giving blood—and how schools can help. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In a typical year before the pandemic, what role did high school blood drives play in the national blood supply?
Our young donors have been very important to us. Before the pandemic, our high school drives were about a quarter of the blood supply. For us, obviously, that’s a big deal. That’s bigger than, for example, our business segment. The only segment that’s bigger is our community segment, which are large community drives.
The other reason that is so important is that these are new donors. And one of the things that we find with all donors is that—if we can get them to donate one, two, or three times—we can build a pattern of donation, a comfort level with donation, and understanding of the importance of it. So it’s an important group today, and it’s a very important group to our future collections.
How did the pandemic affect those drives?
So many schools went online for a period of time, and we lost the ability to meet the students in their schools. And then as schools came back, there was obviously a lot of concern and focus about limiting exposures and not bringing students together unless absolutely necessary.
We’ve also put in a number of very well-thought-out safety protocols, like social distancing, which means our drives take up a pretty big footprint. So, when we used to be able to run a larger blood drive, we’re now running slightly smaller blood drives. I think we’ll see that change.
What would you say to educators about the value of students giving blood?
I would say the biggest message to educators is that this really is a fundamentally important aspect of a young person understanding their contribution to community. I think it’s an incredibly important self-actualizing event. It conveys to students in a very direct and profound way how an act of giving can make a real difference in another human’s life. And, I would argue, it’s almost the most profound way, because it’s literally giving of themselves to sustain the life of someone else.
And what would you say to students?
You give a pint of blood, and literally within an hour, within a few days, after we make sure that blood is safe... that blood will be transfused into the veins of one, two, maybe up to three different people.
In January, you declared a national blood crisis. How bad was the situation?
It was the first time that we’ve had to describe the blood inventory as at a crisis level.
We’ve had many urgent appeals when we are essentially not meeting demand in time. We’re impacting hospitals’ ability to treat patients or, in this case, we’re literally forcing the hospitals to limit the transfusions of blood that they would normally do.
The Red Cross has two scholarship programs to encourage high school students to coordinate and participate in blood drives.
- The Leaders Save Lives Program offers a range of scholarships to student leaders who host blood drives when school is out of session.
- The Sickle Cell Fighter Program will provide a $5,000 scholarship to the top 10 high schools in the country that host at least one blood drive and collect the most-productive units from donors who self-identify as African American or Black this school year.
I’m very glad to report that people responded very well. I would not say we’re quote-unquote out of the woods yet, simply because we’ve seen so much dislocation in our communities that changed donor habits. ... We are still not carrying the inventory that we would like to.
What efforts are you making to reassure schools that it’s safe to restart blood drives?
We’re very appreciative because we are seeing [more school drives planned for] April, May, and June. We are not back to pre-pandemic levels, but we are seeing a significant uptick.
We have a team of folks who go out every day and share [with educators] the importance of hosting blood drives and ... make sure they are successful, and safe, and a positive experience for students. Schools are as important as ever. And, candidly, I think even more so.
You said students are more likely to become repeat donors if they give in high school or college. Could this interruption have long-term effects?
We have lost a couple years of students learning about the importance of blood donations. We would love to catch these seniors before they go and connect with juniors because we’re going to have missed a few years of people understanding and experiencing a blood drive.
What we’ve seen is that, if we don’t give them the experience of giving blood in the high school or college setting, they’re much less likely to do so. This [sudden drop in school blood drives] is going to have a ripple effect no matter what. And our goal now is to bring high schools and colleges back as quickly as possible to try to minimize that ripple effect that we’re going to see, arguably, for years to come.