Blood in the time of COVID-19

In the first few weeks of March, as the country was just beginning to understand the corona virus and our daily lives still seemed normal, the virus made its way around our family, infecting first Patrick, then me, then Isabella and most likely Jordan. 

Patrick caught it from one of his medical providers who, although completely asymptomatic at the time of the appointment, started to have symptoms the next day, tested positive two days later and just like that Patrick was in quarantine. 

When Patrick’s symptoms started just a few days later, he decided to isolate himself in our bedroom, hoping to spare the rest of us.  He picked up trays of food we left for him outside the bedroom door while I furiously disinfected every surface of the house multiple times a day and harangued the kids to scrub their hands raw.

A week later, as Patrick was just starting to feel better, we switched places.  I didn’t leave the bedroom for two weeks. The third week I could join the family for meals but was still fatigued and worn out.  It was a full month before I felt like myself again. 

Right around the time that I started with symptoms, Isabella lost her sense of taste and smell.  An article in the New York Times tipped us off that these were symptoms of the virus.  Too young and otherwise healthy to qualify for a test, she struggled through about a week of feeling tired and achy.  Jordan never had symptoms at all, but it is hard to imagine that he could have made it through unscathed. 

In the scheme of things, we had it easy.  Patrick experienced some shortness of breath and still has a bit of a lingering cough.  I had a fever, chills and night sweats for the first week, but the fatigue was the most irritating symptom and I thought it would never end. None of us required hospitalization, oxygen, or ventilators.  Aside from Patrick’s cough, we all seem to have made a full recovery.

Patrick and I were lucky enough to get tested—exceptionally rare at the time—and the positive results led to phone calls from the Washington State Department of Health with a battery of questions about our symptoms, places of work and efforts to isolate and quarantine. 

By the time we were well on the road to fine, letters had arrived from the Centers of Disease Control indicating that we may have valuable blood:

“If you have fully recovered from COVID-19, you may be able to help patients currently fighting the infection by donating your plasma. Because you fought the infection, your plasma now contains COVID-19 antibodies. These antibodies provided one way for your immune system to fight the virus when you were sick, so your plasma may be able to be used to help others fight off the disease.”

Almost immediately, Patrick and I completed donation applications through Bloodworks Northwest, our regional blood collection center.  After answering some clarifying follow-up questions, I received this email reply:

“We are bound to evaluate donor eligibility by the standards defined by the FDA, and unfortunately gay men are still prohibited by a temporary deferral. As a note: currently that deferral period is 12 months from last sexual contact, but earlier this year the FDA announced that they would reduce that to a three-month deferral. (That change has not been implemented yet, but it will be a part of our criteria ASAP.) However, while that deferral is diminishing, it is nonetheless still an obstacle for many.”

Yes, a three-month deferral is an obstacle.  We all need to make sacrifices during this time, but c’mon. This FDA policy is outrageous. 

Andy Cohen, the famous gay celebrity, host of Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live, new dad and recovering corona patient, summed it up this way:

“The FDA says there is an urgent need for plasma from survivors. All donated blood is screened for HIV, and a rapid HIV test can be done in 20 minutes or less, so why the three-month rule? Why are members from my community being excluded from helping out, when so many people are sick and dying? Maybe because we’re valuing stigma over science — I don’t know. My blood could save a life, but instead it’s over here boiling.”

Our blood is boiling too.  The folks at Bloodworks NW have been understanding and sympathetic.  Their website indicates that they oppose the FDA policy and have advocated for it to be rescinded.  At least twenty state attorneys general agree.  In a letter sent at the end of April to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, they called on the FDA to rescind its regulations, citing an overall shortage of blood donations in the wake of the current health crisis. 

“The discriminatory restrictions against blood donations by healthy gay and bisexual Americans have persisted for far too long; the steps you have taken acknowledge current rules are informed more strongly by bias than science,” the letter read. 

My contact at Bloodworks NW indicated that our blood “may be eligible for donations that will be used for research instead of transfusions.” So, it seems that gay blood can be of some use. We are waiting patiently to hear back from the research specialist.  It’s been more than two weeks, and still no word. 

Donating blood and plasma is a simple, easy way for individuals to help out in the midst of this unprecedented global pandemic.  But as gay men, we are faced with options that are limited and ridiculous.  Straight individuals are not asked to abstain from sex for three months before they donate. Allow us to do more.  Give us the opportunity.  Change this policy.

“This pandemic has forced us to adapt in many ways. We’re quarantining, we’re social-distancing, we’re wearing masks,” Cohen said. “Why can’t we adapt when it comes to this rule? It is bad enough that quarantine has us wondering what day it is. I’m sitting here wondering what year it is. We need to think about this and do better.”