1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Blood in the time of corona

March 19, 2020

Blood donation saves lives — also and especially in the time of coronavirus. The number of people donating has dropped because of the fear of infection. But there are also many who want to help — also and especially now.

Donated blood is collected at Bloodworks Northwest
Image: AFP/K. Ducey

The line stretches all the way out the door and down the front steps to the sidewalk in front of the gray, three-story, shoebox-like building. People are maintaining a distance of 1 or 2 meters (3 to 6 feet) from each other. One by one, they step in through the automatic sliding doors and walk up to the desk.

"37.1. 36.8. 36.3." Behind the desk, a man in a white coat is taking the temperature of all those waiting. With a flowing movement of his hand he changes the protective cap on the thermometer without touching it and sticks it in the visitors' ears, noting down their temperature with his other hand. "36.6. You may proceed to registration."

Read more: Follow the latest developments in our rolling coverage

Decline in donations since Carnival

The people in this line aren't here to get pasta, toilet paper, or plane tickets. They're waiting to be admitted to donate blood at the University Hospital in Bonn. A few days ago, the hospital sounded the alarm. Since Carnival, the number of blood donors has been down almost a third on last year.

Germany saw its first case of coronavirus back in January. Since then, the number has risen rapidly, as has the fear of infection. The number of confirmed infections now stands at around 10,000 (as of March 19). The population has been urged to limit contact with other people as much as possible, and to leave the house only when absolutely necessary. Many parts of Germany, the United States, France, the UK and other countries are consequently reporting a decline in blood donations during the coronavirus crisis. Is a visit to the blood donation center an unnecessary risk?

Read more: Germany faces shortage of health care workers from Poland 

'Time to give something back'

"No," says Prof. Dr. Johannes Oldenburg, the director of the Institute for Experimental Hematology and Transfusion Medicine at the University Hospital in Bonn. He says the strict hygiene regulations at the center offer a high level of protection for both blood donors and recipients, emphasizing that "we're constantly monitoring current developments and are able to make quick adjustments if needed.”

Oldenburg is very pleased about the surge of donors who've come in since his appeal. Over the course of the morning the blood donor service waiting room fills up. A machine spits out one numbered ticket after another. People keep their distance, and smile at each other. Almost every second person you speak to is a first-time donor who's never given blood before. Ruth Schmid, whose son is sitting on her lap, is one of them. "Now's the time to give something back," she says. Her son has had cancer, and needed blood transfusions. Ruth has been planning to donate blood for some time now: "And now that the world of work has almost ground to a halt, I finally have time to act on it."

Read more: Coronavirus confusion about safety of ibuprofen

Fingerprick test

A number lights up, with a beep. Next, please. Sophia Mezger is already waiting at the end of the corridor. She's a medical student working as a student auxiliary, and her job today is to measure potential donors' hemoglobin levels. Only those with enough red blood cells are allowed to donate half a liter of blood, as iron — important for the rebuilding of hemoglobin — is lost during donation.

Mezger uses a tiny needle called a lancet to prick the tip of the middle finger. A droplet of blood goes into the meter. Then she puts the blood pressure cuff around the donor's arm. First-time donors will have a confidential conversation with a doctor to discuss any illnesses they may have had in the past. Then, if everything's okay, they go off to make the actual donation. They were informed on arrival that anyone who has returned from a coronavirus risk area or has been in contact with an infected person is not allowed to enter the building.

Read more: Coronavirus, cold, or flu symptoms: Should I see a doctor?

Saving lives

The people lying on the red and blue couches in the donor room are mostly young. Many of them are students, who say they heard about the appeal from fellow students or saw the university hospital's flyers. Beside the couches, the blood bags are slowly filling up. They are slowly agitated on clinical scales to prevent the blood from clotting — more or less in time to the pop songs playing over the loudspeakers.

Another few liters that will save people's lives — because even in times of coronavirus crisis there are still serious accidents, and cancer and heart patients still need blood transfusions. However, Professor Oldenburg says that elective operations — i.e. those that are not absolutely necessary — have been postponed. "As a result, demand is somewhat lower than usual at the moment. But it's crucial for us to be able to guarantee supply long-term."

A sudden surge won't help

However, if there's a quick rush today and tomorrow that suddenly dies down again, this would actually be very bad news for blood banks. Blood can only be stored for a little over a month, and donors have to wait two to three months before they can donate again. How long will public life in Germany be paralyzed in order to slow down the spread of the coronavirus? Right now, no one knows for sure. The blood donor service at the University Hospital in Bonn hopes that in two weeks, two months, half a year, people will still be queuing at the entrance — maintaining a suitable distance, of course.

Every evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. Sign up to receive it directly here.

Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille