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Donor eligibility during a pandemic - how Dubai’s blood bank adapted during COVID-19

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Experts gathered at Medlab Middle East 2022 to share experiences on blood donors and donation, and in particular how the pandemic had impacted operations.

As part of the Blood Transfusion Medicine talks at Medlab Middle East 2022, experts gathered to share experiences on the topic of donors and donation, and in particular how the pandemic had impacted operations. Dr. Ranjita Sharma from the Blood Donation Centre in Dubai, the emirate’s central blood bank covering collection and supply of blood, discussed how policies changed pre-COVID-19 to the present day. 

The only blood bank issuing blood to both private and government hospitals in Dubai, it was critical to ensure operations continued as smoothly as possible during the pandemic. With 100 per cent of collection coming from voluntary donors and 80 per cent of that from blood drive campaigns out in the field, the pandemic would see operations massively affected in the initial stages.

Between 2017-2019, the number of campaigns had risen in Dubai, but with the start of COVID-19 in 2020, those were cancelled, though regained momentum in 2021. Communication with donors during the pandemic was vital in order to ensure continuity of services, said Dr. Sharma, who elaborated on the extensive process in place to ensure the safety of workers and patients. 

How COVID-19 impacted blood supply 

In January 2020 as the pandemic began to take shape, the blood bank deferred donors who had been to China in the previous month, the virus stemming from Wuhan. In February, the centre arranged educational sessions for staff and donors about the emergence of COVID-19 and by March 10, with the virus spreading, deferred donors who had been to a list of 10 countries.

Things would rapidly change, however, and by March 16 2020, 31 countries had been deferred as the UAE closed its borders. Eventually, anyone with a travel history of 28 days would be asked to defer donation by 28 days to ensure no signs of the virus.

Educational materials were distributed in three languages to staff and donors and a subsequent blood shortage emerged as limitations were placed on donors. To mitigate transmission, the centre took action according to the guidelines from local and international bodies and implemented new protocols which would evolve rapidly. 

Progress of COVID-19 and its impact

As the lockdown progressed, healthcare services were requested to reduce elective surgeries in government and private hospitals in March due to the shortage of donors and the ensuing staff shortage. Donors and staff were afraid to leave home and the shortage of blood moved into an amber phase of emergency level. Even today, the centre keeps a close eye on the situation to monitor collection and supply methods. 

Contingency plans 

Daily operations changed, such as working hours which were adjusted to manage staff shortages accordingly. Dr. Sharma explained that accommodating the donors in the centre was a big challenge because mostly the blood drives were the way donations were managed pre-pandemic. A nearby sports stadium was instead repurposed as a donation centre for a temporary period in April to accommodate the donors safely.

With the shortage of donors, the team began to encourage friends and relatives to donate in order to support efforts. The Dammi App, which was within the DHA app, allowed donors to register for emergency donation.

Additionally, it increased awareness of the new system in place to deal with the state of emergency. Time was spent educating donors with new protocols and reassuring them of their safety. Donors were also engaged by campaigns via social media, newspapers, direct communications, radio and the mobile app. 

Emergency donors and revised eligibility criteria 

During the pandemic’s first wave, between January and May 2020, these campaigns proved successful with 679 new donors registered. Deferral criteria for donors who had travelled remained in place even when lifted by the FDA, with new educational material produced for doctors and a toolkit implemented in March 2020.

Different measures were looked at for eligibility including donors with antibodies now eligible, though there were variabilities according to when someone had been vaccinated, leading to additional deferral criteria for those donors. Blood is kept for 28 days to ensure no signs of COVID-19 before it is allowed into the medical system.

Lessons learnt 

The pandemic helped spur many lessons including the need for healthcare professionals to continuously update knowledge and systems. The team are continuously identifying ‘at risk’ donors and doing all they can to ensure business continuity through a structured plan.

Donor education is critical, said Dr. Sharma, who explained that the pandemic has inevitably reduced the supply of blood and blood components and adversely affected blood system activities. “Blood services have to assess and plan and respond to the situation appropriately and proportionately to the threat of COVID-19,” she said. “This is not just a public health crisis but it touched every sector.”

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