On March 26 the Blood Bank of Hawaii held a news conference explaining that Hawaii faces a blood supply “crisis” due to the shortage of donors. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 4,500 future donors have canceled their appointments, leaving the state’s blood bank to operate at about 70% capacity.

This shortage is not unique to the islands. The American Red Cross reports an unprecedented number of blood drive cancellations.

Host sites, including schools, colleges, and civic organizations, have cancelled 2,700 blood drives throughout the nation due to fears of COVID-19 and social distancing concerns, resulting in 86,000 fewer donations. The U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams urged all healthy Americans to consider donating blood to combat the potential of a nationwide blood supply shortage.

Blood Bank of Hawaii’s CEO, Dr. Kim-Anh Nguyen, made a similar statement.

“As with everything, Hawaii has to provide for its own,” she said. “But I’m not concerned. Hawaii’s blood supply is walking around in the people of Hawaii.”

While I take social distancing seriously, I was inspired by the call to action to do more. As a graduate student who works multiple part time jobs, I may not have the means or resources to donate money.

Blood Bank of Hawaii President CEO Kim-Anh Nguyen MD PHD in their lab.
Blood Bank of Hawaii President CEO Kim-Anh Nguyen in her lab in 2018. The FDA has restrictions on blood donations that hinder the ability to meet demand. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I have always appreciated that here, on the islands, we take care of each other — in whatever form that may take. The very least I can do is donate blood.

But Dr. Nguyen should have followed her statement with an asterisk because the state will not take all healthy blood. According to a Federal Food and Drug Administration mandate issued April 2, men who have sex with men must abstain from sexual contact for three months before donating.

Despite being healthy, HIV negative, and in a monogamous relationship, I cannot give blood — because of who I am and who I love. If my partner needed blood, I would be ineligible to donate mine to him under the FDA policy.

I would even be precluded from donating to my own family members, many of whom are considered to be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

‘Draconian Measures’

Sadly, the 2020 mandate is an improvement from the previous policies.

In 2015, the FDA’s mandate required gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning men to defer from sexual contact for 12 months to donate blood. Previously, the FDA in 1983 placed a lifetime ban on donations from men who have sex with men.

The FDA justified these draconian measures as a result of the HIV/AIDS crisis and limited medical knowledge about the virus. Underlying the policy was fear, stigma, and homophobia.

Today, knowledge and technology to test and prevent HIV has substantially expanded. In light of the advances that can both prevent and screen for the virus, the FDA should update its policy accordingly.

The FDA should not deny blood donation eligibility based on sexual orientation. The deferral policy operates under the assumption that sexual orientation itself determines healthy behavior.

Instead of a blanket deferral, the FDA should adopt an individual risk assessment model so that low-risk individuals — whoever their sex partners may be — can donate blood.

The Williams Institute, the leading research center on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy, projects that if the deferral is lifted, approximately 360,000 more men would be able to donate blood, which would add 615,300 additional pints of blood each year. The FDA estimates that a patient needs a blood transfusion every two seconds.

Social distancing does not mean social disengagement. At a time when our nation requires unity, the FDA’s mandate for blood banks across the nation, including Hawaii, keeps us separated. It’s time to update the antiquated reasoning behind the eligibility policy governing our blood banks.

The FDA estimates that a patient needs a blood transfusion every two seconds.

The need for blood will only increase as the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States continues to surpass every other country. The FDA should allow blood banks to engage in an individual risk assessment of all blood donors and not single out men because of their sexual orientation.

There are many of us — we are your family members, friends, classmates, co-workers, and neighbors — who are denied the chance to give blood and help save lives.

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