Even though the nation is in the midst of the COVID pandemic, other needs go on. A big one is the need for blood. According to Red Cross spokesman Ben Williamson, hundreds of blood drives have been cancelled or rescheduled by the pandemic in the last few months. As a result, thousands of pints of blood have been lost to hospitals.
But the lack of blood hasn't stopped the need, said Williamson. "There are kids that have cancer that need blood. There are still accidents happening where transfusions are needed. As elective surgeries have picked back up at hospitals, that need for blood has gotten even greater. As we live in this COVID-19 environment, we are continuing that mission."
As with most other institutions, the spread of the coronavirus has caused the Red Cross to adapt to circumstances and change its routines, Williamson said. "When you show up as a blood donor, you're required to wear a mask. Our staff, our volunteers, they're all wearing masks. Before you're ever allowed into a building or a blood drive, you're asked screening questions." Also upon entry, staff, volunteers and donors have their temperatures taken. In addition, throughout the building "a deep cleaning takes place in the morning and at night. We've staggered appointments. We are limiting capacity inside buildings so we can spread our donation beds out."
The public is responding to the Red Cross's changes. On a recent afternoon, Julie Lumpkin visited the Columbia Red Cross center to donate blood. "I'm here because I want to do something in response to the COVID crisis," she said, "and this seemed to be a way that I could give back to the community and help somebody."
Lumpkin said the spread of the virus initially gave her pause, but careful consideration overcame any doubts about safety. "I did think about it. I had been very careful about where I was going out in the last four months. So every decision I've made to go out was very well thought through, and this also. I decided that if anybody knew how to keep a place safe and sanitized, the Red Cross would."
Her fellow donor, nursing student Etta Smith, said the pandemic did not bother her as she considered donating. "I was in nursing school, so I know I'm going around infected people all the time, in the hospital during my clinicals. That's the reason I got into it. It doesn't frighten me or put fear in me at all."
Like the others, Bryant McGowan expressed confidence in the Red Cross's precautions to keep staff and donors safe. "I'm happy to do it," said the long-time donor. "It's uncomfortable wearing a mask, but it's a small price to pay."
In fact, added nurse Ebony Asmine, "a lot of people would think it's been slow, but we've been busy, busy, busy. Everybody wants to come out and help." She said the cancellation of off-site blood drives has not slowed the flow of donors at the collection center. As if to make up for those losses, she said, "since they have slowed down the mobiles, we have picked up. So everybody's coming from everywhere, coming to donate here."
But blood collection is not the Red Cross's sole mission. Disaster relief work continues, said Williamson, and that's an area where COVID also has caused changes. When responding to home fires, he said, "We have had great success responding virtually." He recalled a recent large apartment fire in Charleston the Red Cross responded to. "Usually we would have quite a few volunteers go out there, but we actually had only, I think four or five go out to the fire, and we had over a half dozen volunteers that were working and responding virtually." The spokesman said that technique is one that will almost certainly be continued after the pandemic has faded.
In addition to the continuing need for blood donations, one area where the organization is looking for more help is getting more volunteers. Normally, people would come from across the country - even recently as far as Washington state - to aid in a crisis, but COVID again has interfered, cutting down on people's ability to travel. Williamson said he hopes more home-grown talent will help fill the gap to keep their Palmetto State neighbors safe.