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Bliss blood program faces supply shortage; begins testing for coronavirus antibodies

Person giving blood The Armed Services Blood Program at Fort Bliss, Texas, routinely hosts blood drives with their blood donation bus, as well as welcomes donations at the donor center located at 2489 Ricker Road, next to the Fort Bliss Army Community Service. (Photo by Michelle Gordon, Fort Bliss PAO)

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As the United States enters the fourth month of a global pandemic caused by the new coronavirus, it also faces a nationwide blood donation shortage, which includes blood collected for service members deployed overseas.

To encourage donations, as well as assist current COVID-19 patients with recovery, the Armed Services Blood Program at Fort Bliss, Texas, recently started screening all blood donations for COVID-19 antibodies.

"With the COVID-19 antibody testing, the patient experience is exactly the same as a traditional blood donation; there is nothing different," said Army Spc. Christi McRae, a laboratory specialist with the 440th Blood Support Detachment at Fort Bliss. "The blood is sent to an offsite testing location to see if there are any antibodies within the plasma. If there are, it indicates the patient came into contact with the COVID-19 virus at some point, and their body has built up antibodies to fight against it."

McRae said the antibodies do not indicate immunity from the virus; it simply means the patient was exposed to it.

She said, "It could mean they had it and recovered, or they just came into contact with [the virus] and their body was able to react and develop those antibodies without actually getting ill."

After donation the patient will not be contacted again if their blood tests negative for coronavirus antibodies. If it tests positive, they will be called and encouraged to donate plasma, because research shows the antibodies help current coronavirus patients recover much faster.

"Your body is super intelligent," McRae said. "Once you have been exposed to something you make those antibodies, so, when and if you come into contact with it again, your body already has an answer and knows how to react. We do not know how long COVID-19 antibodies remain in each individual's system, so it is important to donate blood soon after recovery or suspected exposure."

McRae hopes the antibody testing will encourage more people to donate blood because the Defense Health Agency has been tasked to collect 10,000 units of COVID-19 antibody-containing plasma before Sept. 30.

The Armed Services Blood Program at Fort Bliss routinely hosts blood drives with their blood donation bus, as well as welcomes donations at the donor center located at 2489 Ricker Road, next to Army Community Service.

Army Staff Sgt. Chris Frost with the 2nd Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment said he saw the blood donation bus parked at Freedom Crossing in mid-July.  He stopped to donate because he has blood type O negative, which he said is always in high demand.

"A few minutes of my time could mean the lifetime of somebody else because this blood is potentially on its way over to Afghanistan to save somebody's life. So, a little bit of my time to save some of my brothers, I'm okay with it."

"Nearly all of our blood products collected here are sent down range to serve the service members," McRae said. "Even though we are here fighting COVID-19, we still have missions around the globe. We have to keep that in mind and make sure we have the life-saving blood products we need to ensure our men and women come back home safely."

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