Public health guidelines for slowing the spread of the virus led to reduced activity throughout the Houston area and limited the Blood Bank’s regular donor outreach programs. High school events — a major source of donations — and company blood drives were canceled in the spring as area government officials imposed restrictions on nonessential businesses and activities. Even as restrictions eased, some companies remained closed or allowed employees to work remotely. Schools implemented remote learning or hybrid plans when classes resumed in the fall.
The Blood Bank encouraged MD Anderson employees to donate if they were able and promoted the safety of blood donations during the pandemic. But community blood drives and donations slowed to a trickle.
Cancer patients depend on blood donors
Cancer patients’ need for blood donations, however, did not decline. Even during a pandemic, doctors must continue vital treatments for MD Anderson’s patients, who frequently require blood products — especially platelets and red blood cells — as they go through chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy.
As Blood Bank managers looked for creative solutions, MD Anderson’s allies stepped up to help, says Ricardo Civallero, program manager, Donor Operations. Energy Transfer, the Houston Dynamo Football Club, CITGO Petroleum Corporation and BP held blood drives for their own employees and members of the public. Pappas Restaurants, Kendra Scott and Stripes Convenience Stores offered gifts or coupons as incentives for blood donors. The events and in-kind contributions were a continuation of the support many of these companies have offered to MD Anderson over the years, on top of $1.8 million collectively raised or donated this past year.
“Our challenge was not just local,” Civallero says, noting the difficulty that health care providers across the nation faced. “Only about 3% of age-eligible people nationwide donate blood yearly to begin with. As the Houston-area community was shutting down, our resources became even more limited.”
Community allies meet the challenge
Energy Transfer held a blood drive at its offices in June, when more than 40 people stepped up to help close the gaps. The Houston Dynamo FC and Houston Dash held three blood drives at BBVA Stadium between June 2020 and January 2021. Collectively, the events helped with the care of more than 400 MD Anderson patients, says Shelly Schultz, marketing program coordinator at the Blood Bank.
“We were pleased to be able to respond to MD Anderson’s need for critical blood supply this summer during a time when donations were low,” says Chris Curia, executive vice president of Human Resources at Energy Transfer. “Our longstanding support of MD Anderson is important to us, but it is especially meaningful for our Houston employees, who always rise to the opportunity to help out when needed, whether that is through blood donations or through our annual employee giving campaign.”
The Dynamo and Dash plan more blood drives in the future, says Valerie Holland, director of Community Relations and Dynamo Charities.
“One of our guiding principles is to lead the way in our community through our deeds and actions. As a professional sports club, we have a unique ability to rally people together in support of a cause, and when our partners at MD Anderson reached out regarding the need for blood donations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew this was an opportunity for us to step in and help,” Holland says. “It's incredible to see the enthusiasm from our fans and staff to do whatever they can to help.”
Stripes Convenience Stores provided 300 coupons to reward donors with a free lunch taco. Pappas Restaurants sent 350 gift cards of $10 to the Blood Bank to offer to people who donated red blood cells — a more intensive and longer process than donations of whole blood. Donations increased more than 90% during the promotion. Kendra Scott offered 50 pieces of jewelry as incentives for people to donate platelets at special Saturday events. Collections went up more than 50% with the Kendra Scott incentive, Schultz says.
“We know how important blood donations are for MD Anderson’s patients, and, given the pandemic, we felt like this was an opportunity to encourage more donors to participate,” says Emily Miller, Kendra Scott’s project and communications manager for philanthropy. “This was our way of saying thank you for helping others when they need it most.”
Christina Pappas, director of marketing for Pappas Restaurants, agrees. “We know how much MD Anderson’s patients depend on blood donations, and we felt like this was a great way we could step in and help the Blood Bank bring more donors in during the pandemic.”
If you live in the Houston area, find out how you can help, too.