South Florida's Blood Centers Still Can't Take Lifesaving Donations From Gay Men

The FDA enacted its lifetime ban for gay and bisexual men to donate blood or plasma in 1983.
The FDA enacted its lifetime ban for gay and bisexual men to donate blood or plasma in 1983. Photo by NJDMVA/Flickr
Once again, Kevin Restrepo feels powerless.

As the demand for blood and plasma soars in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Restrepo's universally accepted O-negative blood could help someone in dire medical straits. But the 25-year-old Florida International University student can't donate blood for the same reason millions of other men have been unable to give blood in the U.S. over the past three decades: He's gay.

Despite newly revised federal guidelines easing restrictions for gay and bisexual men, donation sites across the nation, including at least a dozen in South Florida, have yet to adopt and implement the measures — a drawn-out process that officials say could take the rest of the year.

Restrepo, who has been with his husband for five years, says the conundrum reminds him of the days after the shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. In the aftermath, demand for blood donations soared as dozens of gravely wounded clubgoers filled hospital beds, but Restrepo was unable to contribute.

"I kind of felt powerless because I was like, 'This is literally my community,'" he says. "My community is suffering, and I don't even have the power to help them out."

Now, in the midst of another crisis where Restrepo's donations could be critical for those in need, he can't help but be frustrated. To date, more than 40,000 Floridians have contracted COVID-19, and at least 1,700 have died.

"If I could help somebody by [donating], I would definitely do it," Restrepo says. "But I'm unable to."

Donations of blood and blood plasma have been in high demand since coronavirus began rapidly spreading across the U.S. in early March. Thanks to stay-at-home orders, more than 13,000 Red Cross blood drives were canceled as of April 1, resulting in nearly 400,000 fewer blood donations, according to a spokesperson.

Hospitals are also desperate for donations of blood plasma, which has become important in the fight against COVID-19. As part of an experimental treatment, a person who has already recovered from the virus can donate antibody-rich plasma that can be transfused into critically ill COVID-19 patients in the hope of aiding their bodies in defeating the virus.

On April 2, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) responded to the increased demand for blood and plasma by loosening its controversial restrictions for men who have sex with men in order to expand the pool of prospective eligible donors.

Its solution? Sexually active gay and bisexual men may now donate after being celibate for three months, as opposed to the previous mandate of one year.  Though the Red Cross says its "immediate need" has been addressed and there is no longer a critical shortage of blood, that doesn't negate the fact that millions of men are still ineligible to donate.

The FDA enacted its lifetime ban for gay and bisexual men to donate blood or plasma in 1983 as the AIDS crisis was mounting. That guidance persisted until late 2015, when the feds loosened the policy to allow men who have sex with men to donate if they were celibate for a year.

The most recent rule change, to allow donations from gay or bisexual men after three months of celibacy, has been largely celebrated by LGBTQ advocates. But prospective donors wishing to give blood say the measure doesn't go far enough — that any kind of restriction on sexual activity is based on rhetoric and outdated policies historically used to discriminate.

David Grimes, a Tallahassee attorney who is openly gay, tells New Times he was generally pleased with the announcement of the change in policy. Still, he says, the stipulation to remain celibate for several months isn't reasonable for most sexually active, healthy adults.

"When the risk factor is your identity," says Grimes, "it doesn't seem like much of a change."

Though the FDA's policy revision was announced more than a month ago, blood-donation sites in Florida and across the nation say they're stuck in a holding pattern until they are able to train employees and update their intake procedures. But first, the FDA needs to provide an updated donor questionnaire to reflect the change, which hasn't happened yet.

OneBlood — an Orlando-based nonprofit blood distributor that oversees the bulk of donation sites and mobile units in Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties — has not yet been able to implement the new rule and is likely months out from doing so, according to spokesperson Susan Forbes.

As soon as the federal government distributes the updated forms, Forbes says, OneBlood will be ready to adapt its computer system and internal policies accordingly.

"OneBlood supports the changes the FDA made to donor eligibility," Forbes writes in an email. "It will allow more people to be entered into the donor pool, which is welcomed news.… OneBlood is actively working to implement FDA-announced changes."

OneBlood isn't alone in waiting for further action from the FDA. Kate Fry, CEO of America's Blood Centers, a national trade association that represents independent donation organizations, including OneBlood, says the April announcement has caused frustration for gay and bisexual men who assumed they'd be able to donate blood or plasma right away.

"I think some of the confusion that's happened with the public — and it's completely understandable — is they saw the FDA guidance…and thought that immediately individuals that had previously been deferred would be able to donate," Fry says. "Right now, blood centers across the country are working to implement this guidance from [the] FDA. It requires extensive changes in all of the standard operating procedures, computer system training for employees…all of which has to be done in a very regulated and controlled environment."

Grimes says he's been disappointed by the slow response from the FDA.

"Dragging your feet on the exact measures that are put in place to address that shortage in a crisis seems like they're kind of talking out of both sides of their mouth," he says.
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Michael Majchrowicz is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. He studied journalism at Indiana University and has reported for PolitiFact, The New York Times, Washington Post, the Post and Courier, and Tampa Bay Times.

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