It’s hard to image why anyone would be turned away for wanting to help during the coronavirus pandemic.
But some COVID-19 survivors have revealed that they are being rejected for blood and plasma donations on the basis of their sexuality.
Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration said it would be easing restrictions on blood donations by gay and bisexual men. During the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, lawmakers placed a ban on such donations, alleging that their sexuality made them more likely carriers of the disease.
In 2015, health officials began to allow some gay men to donate based on their recent sexual histories; now, due to a “severe” blood supply shortage caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, the barrier to donate is even more forgiving.
But that doesn’t seem to be happening in some blood banks across NYC.
On Thursday night, Bravo network host Andy Cohen, who tested positive for COVID-19 in March, confessed that a New York City blood bank had refused his donation.
“After recovering from coronavirus, I wanted to see if there was something that I could do to help people who were infected,” the 51-year-old told “Watch What Happens Live” viewers.
“I signed up for a program for COVID-19 survivors where you could donate plasma, which is rich in antibodies, to those still battling the virus. I was told that due to antiquated and discriminatory guidelines by the FDA to prevent HIV, I am ineligible to donate blood because I’m a gay man,” he said.
“Maybe because we’re valuing stigma over science, I don’t know,” Cohen continued. “My blood could save a life, but instead it’s over here boiling.”
Other men have felt similarly devastated when they were only trying to help.
“I cried. I felt less than,” Lukus Estok, 36, told Vice News. When he heard that Mt. Sinai was collecting plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients for research on new treatments, he signed up right away. After a few rounds of screening, by mid-April, the New York Blood Center rejected Estok’s donation.
“To know that I’m healthy, to know that I’m a candidate — like a solid candidate — for donation, but I can’t because … I don’t know, they can’t get an IT guy in to fix their computers? That’s so hard for me to wrap my head around,” the Brooklyn-based entrepreneur said in an interview with the Guardian.
Estok’s experience parallels many others across the country, such as Brennon Mendez, in Orange, California. The 24-year old Yale law student told the British outlet that he had been “ecstatic” when he heard he was eligible, then felt “stigmatized” when the UC Irvine Health Blood Donor Center turned him away earlier this month.
John Murray, assistant director of communications at UCI Health, told Vice that their ability to accept blood from gay and bisexual men hinged on “revision to and FDA approval of the American Association of Blood Bank’s donor history questionnaire” — which apparently hasn’t happened yet. Until then, they have no method of keeping record of the extraordinary donors.
The same goes for other blood bank and disaster relief organizations, such as the American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers. Katy Fry, CEO of the latter company, admitted to the Guardian that the update process could take “two to three months.” Others say it could take even longer as many deal with a strain on staffing in observance of social-distancing orders.
Many advocates are calling for more individualized assessments of high-risk sexual behavior of donors, rather than treating gay and bisexual men as a monolith.
Moreover, the fear of contaminated donor blood is unnecessary, according to Paul Volberding, director of UCLA’s AIDS Research Institute. He claims that HIV testing is “probably the most accurate tests we have in medicine,” and far better than they were when the FDA enacted the restrictions in the 1980s.
“We should not be limiting the supply of blood for reasons that have nothing to do with the safety of the blood,” he told VICE. “We should be encouraging people to donate.”