Pandemic blood drives

Blood donor Emily Henman, far right, watches as Red Cross nurse Rickeya Alton prepares to start her blood donation during a Red Cross Blood Drive at the Embassy Suites in St. Charles, Missouri on Feb. 8, 2021. With typical locations like schools and corporate offices less available because of the pandemic, the Red Cross has pivoted to holding blood drives in less typical locations, like hotels. (Sara Diggins/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

ST. LOUIS — A mechanical bull, whiskey signs and ... blood bags?

The scene at the PBR St. Louis in Ballpark Village last week is not normal for either a bar or a Red Cross blood drive, but the coronavirus pandemic has forced the group to get creative.

"Giving blood next to a mechanical bull was kind of an odd scenario," said longtime donor Diana VanDuyne, 60, who added that she was surprised but not bothered by the location.

Joe Zydlo, a Red Cross spokesman, said 18% to 20% of blood drives nationwide are at schools, which were either closed entirely or closed to visitors starting last March.

Corporate blood drives were canceled because workers were at home.

The largest blood drive in the country is one held yearly at Mizzou in October, routinely collecting 900 to 1,000 units per day for four days, Zydlo said. The Red Cross was forced to make up for the loss of roughly 4,000 units when that was canceled.

"We were able to overcome that ... because of other businesses stepping up," Zydlo said, with so-called "alternate venue drives."

Zydlo said that the Red Cross has long partnered with Drury Inn. But the company hosted new drives at hotels across the state, along with other hotel companies.

Carrie Sheridan, vice president of sales and marketing for Drury, said the company has hosted over 81 blood drives in 10 cities in four states since their first hotel blood drive in April.

"Hotels struggled. We had a lot of empty inventory," she said. "They struggled ... so it meant for a nice partnership through this time."

Turner Hall at St. Louis University was used when the school was closed. Business at Dalton's Flowers, in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, was devastated by the pandemic. The owners told the Red Cross they could use the space, and the group did for three or four days a week. "For a couple of months, it gave us a donor center," Zydlo said, in an area where there wasn't one.

Zydlo said there have been drives in the areas normally used for tours at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis. Churches, which normally host a one-day drive, have expanded to multiple days to allow more people to donate.

"It's been nothing short of amazing that we've been able to hit our goal," Zydlo said.

Juliet Debo was looking for a place to donate when she spotted the drive at the Embassy Suites in St. Charles. It was closer to her St. Charles home, and she said less busy than normal donation sites.

"It just makes it easier to get in, do your donation and be on your way," said Debo, 60.

She also donated at a church fellowship hall earlier in the pandemic.

It was her first time donating in a hotel, but far from her first time at a drive. She's donated a total of 204 units, or 25 gallons, according to her Red Cross app.

Zydlo said the group is also seeing more first-time donors, perhaps because the group tests the blood for COVID-19 antibodies, so it's a free way of finding out if you've ever been infected.

Zydlo said the group would not normally hold a blood drive at a bar, but PBR St. Louis has been closed due to the pandemic. And before you ask, there was no alcohol at the PBR drive. The Red Cross also recommends that you abstain for 24 hours after a donation to give your body time to recover.


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