If You Donate Blood Now, You Can Get a Free Covid-19 Antibody Test

For a limited time, the American Red Cross will test all blood donations for Covid-19 antibodies. This will give you more information about your exposure, and help communities understand how far the virus has spread. Bonus: If you donate between June 1 and 30, you'll get a $5 amazon.com gift card.

Even at the best of times, blood donation centers struggle to get enough blood to meet the demand. And these are not the best of times. Since the pandemic started, 30,000 blood drives have already been canceled, according to the American Red Cross.

“We’re collecting right now at about 90 percent what we had anticipated to be collecting this June but we’re distributing at normal levels,” says Paul Sullivan, senior vice president at the American Red Cross. “It’s eating into our inventory.”

Now the need for blood is even more critical as elective surgeries and procedures that had been delayed because of Covid-19 start up again. To help meet the need, starting June 15, the American Red Cross will be testing all donations—blood, platelet, and plasma—for Covid-19 antibodies. Antibody testing will be provided for a limited time, at least during the summer months.

“We hope this will help our donors be better informed about whether they’ve been exposed to Covid-19 and, in turn, help communities understand how Covid-19 is impacting them,” says Sullivan. So far, the response has been encouraging.

close up of donating blood and antibody testingPacific Press/Getty Images

Why donate blood?

There are so many reasons to give blood. First, you’ll help people who need it. “Blood is needed for many purposes,” says Sullivan. This includes red blood cell transfusions needed for surgery, childbirth, or treating sickle cell anemia, as well as platelets to help people undergoing treatment for burns, cancer, immune system problems, and many, many other conditions. Helping others, of course, makes you feel good. (You may want to know about the 11 surprising benefits of giving blood.)

“Blood is an ongoing need and there’s usually a shortage,” says Len Horovitz, MD, a pulmonary specialist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. One issue is that blood products can be stored for only 120 days before they have to be destroyed.

“The blood supply is always on the edge but right now it’s really on the edge,” says Dr. Horovitz.

A public health benefit

The new Red Cross initiative also fills a major public health need. “The Red Cross screening blood donations will provide a public service by giving some idea of the number of people who may have been exposed or infected by the virus,” says S. Wesley Long, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and genomic medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital.

Ideally, for a true picture of the Covid-19 situation, “You would want to do antibody testing on absolutely everybody in the population and get an idea of the actual prevalence of Covid-19, including asymptomatic cases,” says Dr. Horovitz.

The new Red Cross testing won’t do this. People who donate blood represent a subsection of the total population because people are screened beforehand to see if they are eligible to give blood, says Dr. Long. (Here are 14 surprising reasons you may not be able to donate blood.) “The observed frequency of antibodies in blood donors will differ from the true frequency in the population,” he adds

What are antibody tests?

Antibody tests don’t diagnose active infections. They test for antibodies, which are proteins in your blood that develop after you’ve been exposed to the virus, even if you did didn’t have symptoms.

There are about 18 Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-authorized antibody tests for Covid-19, and the Red Cross is using one called Ortho Clinical Diagnostics VITROS Anti-SARSCoV2 Total Test. A blood sample is taken at the donation site and then sent to a lab. Donors can expect to get the results within seven to 10 days, says the Red Cross

According to the FDA, the sensitivity and specificity of this particular test is in the 90-100% range, meaning if you test positive, you very likely were infected with the virus at some point in the past, and if you test negative, the chances are good that you were not exposed to the virus (no test is perfect).

Often, antibodies to a disease indicate that you’re now immune, but in the case of Covid-19 this is not certain. “Donors need to remember to interpret antibody test results with caution, as we do not know if the presence of antibodies always correlates with a protective immune response, and even if it does, we do not know yet how long immunity to Covid-19 will last,” says Dr. Long. “Positive antibody tests should not give people a false sense of security.”

What happens to Covid-19-positive donations?

Unlike blood donations that test positive for HIV or certain other infectious, donations that test positive for Covid-19 can still be used for patients in need. “The presence of antibodies won’t affect whether or not we use the donation,” says Sullivan. “There’s no indication that Covid 19 can be transmitted through blood transfusion. We’re testing for the reaction to the virus, not the actual virus.”

In fact, Covid-19-positive donations could have another purpose: as convalescent plasma, he adds. Convalescent plasma is separated from blood taken from people who have recovered from Covid-19, then transfused into people with active infections in the hopes that the antibodies will help fight off the infection. (The Red Cross has a convalescent plasma program, so if you test positive you may be eligible to join.)

american red cross phlebotomist sanitizing medical bedMediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images/Getty Images

How safe is it to donate blood?

All Red Cross blood drive and donation centers are following recommended safety and infection-control protocols, says Sullivan. This includes providing hand sanitizer, following social distancing guidelines, making sure face masks are worn by donors and staff alike, disinfecting surfaces and equipment, wearing gloves, using sterile collection kits and taking everyone’s temperature when they come in the door

“We do have procedures for social distancing,” says Sullivan. “If a blood drive is busy and can’t maintain social distancing, we ask people to wait in their car and we’ll call them on their cell phones. We’re physically structuring lobby areas so there’s plenty of room. If you arrive early, you can sit in a socially distant setting.”

If you feel unwell, the American Red Cross is asking that you stay home. Antibody tests can’t diagnose active Covid-19 infections, they can only detect past infections. Antibodies take weeks to form after an infection. In fact, if you get tested for antibodies too soon after you get the virus, you may get a false negative—a test result suggesting you don’t have the virus.

Active Covid-19 infections are diagnosed with a nasal swab that looks for genetic material of the virus. The Red Cross is not conducting nasal swab tests or looking for active infections, so really, if you feel sick do NOT go to the Red Cross—see your doctor instead. If you do think you have Covid-19, wait until you’ve been symptom free and feeling well for at least 28 days before going in to donate blood.

How to give

The American Red Cross is asking donors to make appointments to donate blood at RedCrossBlood.org (just enter your zip code), through their Blood Donor App, or by calling 1-800-RED-CROSS.

You can save time by completing a RapidPass. This guides you through the pre-donation process including a health history questionnaire. According to the American Red Cross, people who are 17 years of age, weigh 110 pounds or more and who are in good health can donate. (Learn more about who is eligible to donate blood.)

And one added incentive: If you donate between June 1 and 30, you’ll get a $5 amazon.com gift card.

Sources

Amanda Gardner
Amanda Gardner is a freelance health reporter whose stories have appeared in cnn.com, health.com, cnn.com, WebMD, HealthDay, Self Magazine, the New York Daily News, Teachers & Writers Magazine, the Foreign Service Journal, AmeriQuests (Vanderbilt University) and others. In 2009, she served as writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is also a community artist and recipient or partner in five National Endowment for the Arts grants.