About two weeks ago, I received dreadful news that my father had been taken into emergency surgery. I’ve written about his case before … where a failure to provide a 10-day prophylactic antibiotic for a routine oral surgical procedure eventually led to endocarditis and months of anguish and uncertainty.
Thanks to intravenous antibiotics, the infection in his heart was quickly halted, but the material on his heart valve eventually broke free and jammed into an artery in his leg, causing what is called a “deep vein thrombosis.” Two months later, after a lot of pain and suffering and being told that he just had to wait it out, an attentive vascular surgeon recognized the urgency of his situation and he took my dad to surgery immediately. The pressure from the constant swelling led to tissue necrosis among other things, but in the end, two rounds of surgery saved my dad’s leg and he is recovering rapidly.
During the initial surgery, the vascular surgeon had to use six pints of blood plus plasma and platelets. My dad was lucky because, in the age of COVID-19, blood shortages are threatening. Our normal model for collecting blood is through a regular series of blood drives that capitalize on healthy populations such as college students. Unfortunately, with social distancing many drives have been canceled leading to reports from the American Red Cross that the blood supply has dropped to five days or less nationwide.
Blood drives are still happening (there are five scheduled in Pullman between now and the middle of April), and the details for these drives or for scheduling an appointment are easy to find at www.redcrossblood.org. If you have ever given blood you are familiar with a rather lengthy interview process that is used to identify risk factors that prevent you from donating. The American Red Cross has a phone app that allows you to go through many of these questions before you arrive, making the process faster for everyone. If you have never donated before, this is a very simple process and I’m sure that you will be delighted by the excellent one-on-one attention you will receive by the dedicated staff who run these operations.
Like other coronaviruses, it is very likely that the immune response against COVID-19 includes generation of antibodies against the virus. Consequently, COVID-19 survivors may become especially important blood donors in the near future because they harbor these invaluable antibodies. This “convalescent antisera” can be harvested from blood and it could be used in a couple of ways with the most effective being to protect our healthcare providers who are at highest risk of infection (this is called “passive immunity”). Giving antibody to someone who is already infected is not likely to be a very effective clinical therapy, but it may be sufficient to prevent death for the most severe cases.
As the nation responds to this crisis, one has to wonder how the anti-vaccine community will respond when an effective anti-COVID-19 vaccine becomes available. This is particularly true for hardcore “anti-vaxxers” who consider mandatory vaccination to be a question of civil liberties.
At some level, I can’t disagree with their argument even if it is remarkably selfish and it is saddening that “mandatory” should even be a necessary stipulation.
I say this because while vaccinations train your immune system to recognize and prevent specific infections, ultimately, vaccinations are “not about you.” Getting vaccinated means that you are protecting everyone around you … particularly those who can’t be vaccinated (e.g., cancer patients, infants and others with limited immune systems). But, if this is your stance, I urge you to make a special effort to donate blood as often as possible. At least this way you are contributing to the common good, particularly in this age of shortages.
Doug Call is a microbiologist. He first discovered the Palouse 37 years ago.