Throughout the pandemic, health officials have been urging individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 to donate their blood plasma, which can be used to treat patients suffering from the disease. Preliminary research shows that patients with (or at risk of) severe COVID-19 who receive convalescent plasma within three days of diagnosis are less likely to die than patients who receive convalescent plasma later in their illness.
Despite the need for blood plasma, many men who identify as gay or bisexual who have recovered from COVID-19 are waking up to the fact that they still can’t donate blood.
The policy is a relic from the 1980s when gay men were banned from donating blood to reduce the spread of HIV. The government recently rescinded the policy, but recent reporting shows that many facilities still aren’t up to speed.
The Latest Blood Donation Guidelines
In 1985 at the height of the AIDS crisis, the FDA ruled that all men who had sex with other men after 1977 couldn’t donate to make sure the nation’s blood supply didn’t contain HIV.
However, these guidelines have come a long way in recent years. The restrictions changed in 2015 to sex with other men within the last 12 months. Outcry from the LGBTQ+ community and elected officials pushed the FDA to change the policy again in April of last year to sex within the last three months. The change also increased the number of donors at a time when donations were down across the country due to the emerging pandemic.
Advocates say that gay men should be allowed to donate blood. Technology has made it easier for providers to detect HIV. New drugs like PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) have also reduced the spread of HIV among the gay and bisexual community.
The Need for Blood Plasma During the Pandemic
Despite these changes, recent reporting shows that many of the nation’s blood drives and donation centers have yet to implement the new policy.
In addition to donated blood, providers also need the plasma from people who have recovered from the coronavirus. However, a person must meet certain criteria in order to donate their plasma.
According to the latest guidelines:
“They have to have tested positive for COVID-19, recovered, have no symptoms for 14 days, currently test negative for COVID-19, and have high enough antibody levels in their plasma. A donor and patient must also have compatible blood types. Once plasma is donated, it is screened for other infectious diseases, such as HIV. Each donor produces enough plasma to treat one to three patients. Donating plasma should not weaken the donor’s immune system, nor make the donor more susceptible to getting reinfected with the virus.”
Lukus Estok told NBC News last year that he wasn’t allowed to donate blood plasma after recovering from the coronavirus. He said he was turned away from a clinic in New York after he told them he was gay. “I was shocked,” said Estok, 36. “I’ve been through a month of hell with this virus. I’m finally recovered. I’ve been through a screening process that tells me I’m a potential candidate to help somebody else and now I’m being told I can’t.”
He’s not alone.
Both the Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers, which represent over 800 blood drives across the U.S., have confirmed that they haven’t been able to take blood from gay men despite the new regulations. Many centers haven’t updated their computer systems for the new rule to take effect. Others say they haven’t had a chance to train their staff on the new policy.
Another problem, a trade group that represents nearly all the U.S. blood banks, says it hasn’t gotten approval for an important document from the FDA.
Estok describes how he felt after being turned away. “I was not expecting the reaction I got,” he said. “It was like I was radioactive. I was so upset. I genuinely want to be able to contribute to help somebody and right now they’re basically putting out messages that they need blood that there’s shortage of blood. But at the end of it, they sent me home.”
Brandon Gunther, who recovered from COVID-19 last year, had a similar experience in Sacramento, CA after trying to donate his blood plasma.
“I hadn’t had sex in the past three months so figured I was good to go,” said Gunther. “But the computer rejected my eligibility to donate and I was told ‘you have to remain abstinent from male-to-male sex for at least one year to be eligible to donate.'”
Many facilities are in the process of updating their guidelines to include the new policy, but members of the LGBTQ+ community say the new rules still feel onerous. Gay and bisexual men looking to donate must abstain from contact with their same-sex partner for three months, which doesn’t apply to straight people.