Along with surgical masks, ventilators and intensive-care beds, the nation’s blood supply is under heavy strain during the coronavirus pandemic.

The American Red Cross announced a “severe blood shortage” on March 17 as COVID-19 spread. In Washington, Bloodworks Northwest reported March 9 that the region’s blood supply had fallen to emergency levels because so many donation drives had been canceled. While social distancing and staying out of public spaces continue to be sound policy to tamp down the pandemic, the need for a robust blood supply is urgent and will be ongoing for weeks to come.

So far, Puget Sound has stepped up heroically. By March 23, volunteer donations had wiped out an 11,500-unit shortfall, Bloodworks said. But that praiseworthy response doesn’t eliminate the extraordinary need that will persist as long as coronavirus restricts people from the offices and campuses that host community blood drives during normal times.

This need has little precedent, and the federal Food and Drug Administration must act accordingly by broadening the pool of potential donors. Increasingly, medical experts assert the FDA’s current policy restricting men who are sexually active with other men from donating blood for a full year is too restrictive, yet this rule remains on the agency’s books. 

In 2019, the American Medical Association endorsed updating the policy to reflect advances in HIV testing, citing research that the 12-month deferral restricts 2.1 million potential donors from contributing. It did not recommend a specific deferral. The United Kingdom had a similar 12-month donation restriction until 2017, when it reduced the required abstinence to three months. The Red Cross in November recommended that the FDA make a similar change for American donations, yet the agency has not acted. 

The FDA should grant the request sent Thursday by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, 16 of her Democratic colleagues and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, to eliminate this homophobic policy.

Advertising

“We urge you to swiftly update blood donor deferral policies,” the senators wrote, “in favor of ones that are grounded in science, are based on individual risk factors, do not unfairly single out one group of individuals and allow all healthy Americans to donate.”

The rule is a remnant of an earlier policy that barred for life all gay and bisexual men who had ever had sex with men from donating blood, enacted during the 1980s as AIDS spread across America. In 2015, the lifetime ban became a ban on donations from men who have had sex with men within the past 12 months. As advocates said at the time, this alteration did not go far enough. A better federal policy is badly needed now and will remain a good idea after coronavirus is tamed.

It is beyond time to make a federal policy change that better comports with science and reduces the policy stigma LGBTQ Americans continue to endure. A national crisis is also an opportunity to muster the institutional will to resolve longstanding deficiencies. All healthy Americans should have the opportunity to help resolve this urgent need. The FDA should allow them to do so.