Before the pandemic, whenever blood donations dipped, school blood drives served as a steady supply for the New York Blood Center, accounting for roughly a quarter of the center’s reserves and helping cultivate a lifelong habit of donating blood among teenage participants.
But that source ran dry during the pandemic as schools shuttered and moved to remote learning, and COVID-19 restrictions limited in-person gatherings at schools. The Blood Center went from hosting 61 drives at city high schools between January and March 2019 that yielded more than 3,000 blood donations, to just three school-based drives for a total of 182 donations during the same period last year, according to the organization.
The shortage of banked blood has had critical short-term consequences for hospitals and health care providers who rely on donations for a range of medical procedures, and demand for blood is even higher now than at the start of the pandemic, according to Andrea Cefarelli, the executive director of the Blood Center.
The slowdown of school drives could also have a long-term effect on blood supply, with fewer teens getting the chance to build the habit of giving blood while they’re young, Blood Center staffers say.
Now, as COVID-19 restrictions loosen in city schools, teens, educators and Blood Center staffers are scrambling to bring school-based blood drives back to pre-pandemic levels — working diligently behind the scenes to organize events, mobilizing students and teachers to participate, and trying to spread the word to still-wary kids and adults.
“We felt compelled to do it,” said Pat Fasano, the director of the nursing program at Curtis High School in Staten Island, who, alongside her teenage students preparing to become nurses, has organized three blood drives so far this school year.
“Nurses go in when no one else will,” she added. “We figured it would start a domino effect with other schools opening up as well.”
Cefarelli said the number of school blood drives has begun to rebound, but still remains far below pre-pandemic levels, with 26 city high schools holding drives between January and March of this year for a total of 1,212 donations.
But students and staffers said there are still formidable obstacles.
At the beginning of this school year — the first with full-time, in-person learning in city public schools since the start of the pandemic — many teachers and kids were still wary of a COVID-19 risk, or just preoccupied with more immediate concerns, Cefarelli said.
Restrictive visitor rules at some schools also made it difficult for the Blood Center to come in and host drives, which must take place indoors per federal Food and Drug Administration guidance. Some of the staffers who ran point on the drives before the pandemic left their schools between March 2020 and September 2021, Cefarelli added, forcing the Blood Center to rebuild relationships with new educators.
“The blood drives were just one extra extracurricular activity they couldn’t commit to in the middle of dealing with everyone else,” Cefarelli said.
Just as the Blood Center was beginning to rebuild momentum with schools, the winter omicron surge hit, keeping kids home in droves and scuttling plans again.
At Curtis High School, however, students in the nursing program were determined to get their blood drive up and running, despite the challenges. Eighteen-year-old seniors Marco Kua and Arlinda Lajci took the lead on organizing, fanning out across the 2,400-student school to encourage students — who must be 16 or older to participate — and staff to give blood.
They posted flyers, made announcements over the P.A. system, and answered questions from students — most of whom had never donated blood before.
“It was difficult trying to get students to participate,” Marco recalled. “They’re worried about getting sick.”
Arlinda added that some students told her “they were scared of needles from all the vaccines.”
Seeing how nurses work and operate during the pandemic, they’re always the first one in line, and I want to be part of that.
But the teens persisted, launching three blood drives so far this school year, and they’ve seen participation steadily increase from the first event in October to the most recent earlier this month.
The student organizers weathered some of the challenges that come with any blood drive: kids turned away because their blood didn’t meet the bank’s specifications, and several donors who fainted. But with the help of the medical staff on hand, the events ran smoothly, the teens said.
And despite all the obstacles the pandemic threw at them, the teens said the experience has only strengthened their convictions about the importance of blood donation — and their commitment to working in the health care field.
“Seeing how nurses work and operate during the pandemic, they’re always the first one in line,” Marco said, “and I want to be part of that.”
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